Step back in time and imagine yourself at the Mermaid Lounge at the Sheraton Alms Hotel in Cincinnati. The warm colorful room and brightly patterned plush carpet usher you in for a relaxing evening, allowing a sense of escape from your daily routines. Beautiful mermaid and sea folk paintings adorn the walls. Ronnie Dale, the noted organist from the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field, entertains you. Alternating between the piano and organ, he plays popular tunes in his inimitable style. A beautiful gowned woman appears, greeting you with a smile, asking for your name and taking your drinks order ...
A postcard, like a time capsule, can capture the essence of an era or place. This particular card, with its captivating colors, patterns, and perspective, makes you want to travel back in time. But who is the handsome woman floating above the green carpet? Her plunging neckline and distinctive pose are reminiscent of other cocktail waitresses depicted on postcards from Sheraton Hotels.
The mastermind behind these winsome women was Mrs. Edna Gilbert, the mistress d’ at the Mermaid and numerous other Sheraton lounges across the country. Hired by the chain in 1948 to raise the cocktail lounges’ revenues, Mrs. Gilbert promised to increase sales up to 70 percent with her team of glamorous hostesses. Formerly a pioneer airline stewardess and Broadway musical dancer and comedienne, Mrs. Gilbert employed and trained women between the ages of 25 and 35 to become “service-aides” at the various lounges. Specific physical requirements of the applicants included a height of no less than 5’5”, a bust size no less than 34”, a waist between 24”- 26”, and statuesque legs.
Mrs. Gilbert and select “finishing schools” taught newly hired recruits how to keep the (male) customers happy with a specific walk, talk, dress, hairstyle and makeup application. These stylish ladies were trained to keep ashtrays clean and popcorn bowls filled. The aides not only memorized the cocktail menu, but learned to recognize the needs and wishes of the patrons such as: the one who “wants” to drink or likes the atmosphere, the one who is depressed and “needs” a drink, the one who is happy and “owes” himself a drink, and the one who entertains guests. The women earned between $80 to $200 a week, which translates to $835 to $1,800 in today’s currency. A married service aide could only work at the lounge with her husband’s consent. He had to promise to stay away from the hotel and not cause trouble!
The costume de rigueur were gowns designed and sewn by Mrs. Gilbert to a tune of $75 each. The long flowing transparent skirt was topped by a taffeta décolleté blouse. Open-toed gold or black sandals were required footwear. In some cities, like Newark and Cincinnati, the see-through skirt was deemed indecent by the local police, and the ladies were required to wear a petticoat or an opaque garment. Mrs. Gilbert, however, did not deem the gowns indecent. She claimed that it was the hostesses’ prompt and courteous service, not the be-gowned attractions, that increased bar sales.
Mrs. Gilbert’s business model delivered glamour and swank to the Sheraton’s cocktails lounges coast-to-coast. At least 20 Sheraton Hotels placed the statuesque service-aides in far-flung cocktail lounges across the country. In Providence, R.I., the lovely ladies were on-the-ready to serve patrons their favorite concoction at Sheraton’s Bacchante Room. The caption on the back of a 1948 postcard from New York City’s Sheraton Lounge at 37th Street and Lexington Avenue proclaims, “your favorite drink, mixed with a touch of genius… served with a touch of Venus.” Businessmen such as Jack Whittemore, owner of Mus-Art talent agency, set up headquarters at the Lexington Avenue Sheraton. The sumptuous lounge was a likely location for him to discuss booking his roster of clients which included Jimmy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.
Whether patronage was for business or pleasure Gilbert’s program was such a success that sales jumped 700 percent at the Sheraton’s cocktail lounge in Washington, D.C. during the first week the ladies appeared! Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago recorded similar sensational boosts in business at their lounges confirming the success of the strategy.
The Sheraton expanded their concept by providing free giveaways of the alluring fancy-frocked maids on postcards, matchbooks, and swizzle sticks reminding guests of their high class evening out on the town and advertising to future customers.
As time marched on, Mrs. Gilbert’s marketing scheme fell out of favor, but the Sheraton’s intriguing postcards and memorabilia harken us back to the days of “service with charm.”
This article first appeared in Metro News, a bulletin of The Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City.