An Englishman born in Paris in 1819, George Lea emigrated to the United States at the age of 19. Initially trained as a pharmacist in Bristol England, Lea came to America penniless, but found employment at a New York City drug store on Crosby Street.
Tenacious and driven, it was not long afterward that Lea became the store’s owner. From his initial store, Lea went on and opened up additional stores at Grand and Mulberry streets, Allen and Spring streets, and two more on Broadway.
In 1856 Lea made his entry into show business. Opening a performance at the Chinese Assembly Rooms, it initially flopped. But rather than giving up on the speculative venture, Lea instead contacted the New York Herald and took out a full-page advertisement for the show. Paying a cash price of $212, Lea was the first advertiser ever in the United States to take-out a full page newspaper spread. His determination paid off — demand for the show skyrocketed and he was thus able to earn a profit.
Starting in the 1850s several entertainment ventures opened in New York which made tableaux vivants their primary bill. Tableaux vivants — the forerunner of burlesque — featured actors, mostly women, posing nude or semi-nude under the guise of replicating master artworks. Theatres such as the Temple of the Muses and The Wallhalla specialized in these types of “shows.” Given the predominantly conservative social-norms of the era, nary a better gimmick for enjoining eroticism with “culture” could have been invented.
Situated at 127 Franklin Street one block from Broadway, The Franklin Museum was also such a venue. Opened by George Lea and occupying the upstairs spaces of the building, the main attraction that Lea put on stage were ‘Model Artists.’
Another name for tableaux vivants, ‘Model Artist’ shows put on the air of legitimacy by having “artists” re-enact semi-nude scenes found in classical paintings. Only but the most naive person couldn’t see through the contrivance. Marquee language often hinted to customers what to expect from the shows — and the customers certainly came. Indeed, the term “Model Artists” was simply code for voyeurism, while tableaux vivants was eroticism with a slightly tamer twist.
If there was any question as to what Lea’s shows actually were all about, any doubts were put to rest after one saw his newspaper spreads. Prominently placed and repeatedly located throughout the dailies, The New York Herald often had three or more of Lea’s ads peppered throughout its advertising section.
Admission was advertised at 25-cents for a box seat, and an orchestra seat could be had for twice that. Two shows were run daily except Sundays. The first show was in the afternoon; the second in the evening. They were almost always packed.
Even more risque, patrons who wished to embark on a more tantalizing show could attain ‘private boxes’ for 1-dollar, or a seat on the “stage” for 3-dollars.
Despite being a roaring success, the era of Model Artists and Tableaux Vivants being a fixture in New York’s theatre scene didn’t last long. The genre (if it could be called that) was popular from about 1854 through 1860. As New York’s mainstream shows matured and grew ever more complex, tableaux and semi-dressed scenes found themselves incorporated into mainstream theatrical performances, where and when such glimpses were dramatically legitimate and apropos.
For those customers who simply wished to continue seeing scantily clothed women, the rise of concert saloons satisfied the need. Proprietors of such venues were not showman, but rather saloon keepers who employed well endowed yet minimally dressed waitresses.
By the early 1860s Lea had moved on. After having accumulated a sizable profit from the Franklin Museum venture, he branched out, expanded his reach, and pursued more legitimate theatrical enterprises. By 1862 he was managing places of drama in New York, Baltimore, Washington, and Detroit.
By the end of the Civil War, Lea found himself a very wealthy theatrical manager. However, having invested his earnings in speculative stocks, he ultimately lost his entire fortune.
In 1867 Lea packed-up his affairs, bade adieu to New York City, and relocated upstate to Port Jervis NY. Upon his arrival, he once again returned to his roots and opened a drug store. Ever the speculator, soon thereafter he also took-up managing area theatres and hotels, including developing Pennsylvania’s Shohola Glen resort.
George Lea died in 1902.
Rulau reports but only 7 known surviving specimens of Model Artist’s token in addition to the specimen pictured below. Six were struck on Spanish-American 2-reales; the seventh struck on an 1807 U.S. Bust Quarter. The following table outlines the census:
It is plausible that more than 8 specimens actually exist. For the moment however, the emission is classified as having a rating of R-7 on Rulau’s Rarity Scale.
The specimen pictured below was struck on a 1772 Spanish-American 2-reale piece. Though the host coin is approximately G-6 in grade, the counterstamp itself remains quite sharp, and is approximately EF-40 in grade. Given that it was struck on a 2-reale piece, it is most plausible that it served as an admission check for a box seat.
Notes and Sources
- The New York Herald, September 1, 1856
- Ibid., February 27, 1857
- Ibid., January 18, 1858
- ‘A Born Speculator Dead,’ The New York Times, August 21, 1902
- A History of the New York Stage: From the First Performance in 1732 to 1901, Volume 2, Thomas Allston Brown, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1903, pg.23
- Broadway Below the Sidewalk: Concert Saloons of Old New York, William L. Slout, Wildside Press LLC, 1994, pgs. xiii-xiv
- The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle: Joseph Jefferson and Nineteenth-century American Theatre, Benjamin McArthur, Yale University Press, 2007, pg.10
- The Library of Congress Digital Archives