Starting in the late 1930s, a Coke and a Barbara Babb smile become a formidable pair.
They were together in Ladies Home Journal, in Cosmopolitan, in the Saturday Evening Post, on calendars, even on highway billboards. Today, they’re back together, thanks at least in part to the Ruby’s diner chain.
As part of its 1940s-era theme, Ruby’s has revived the old Coca-Cola soda fountain ads that graced the magazines of those days. Consequently Babb, now Barbara Lara, 59, mother of four and a grandmother, can walk into a Ruby’s and see her 14-year-old face smiling back at her.
“I can’t help it, I still hold a Coke bottle the same way,” she said, breaking into her patented smile.
Thanks to her mother, who was in the advertising business in the 1930s, the young Barbara Babb became a model. Thanks to Coca-Cola and noted illustrator Haddon (Sunny) Sundblom, her face became famous.
She was only 3, the daughter of John Babb, sheriff of Cook County, Ill., when she appeared on her first billboard. By the time she was a teen-ager, Lara was traveling on her own to Sundblom’s office in Chicago.
The old process was simple. She would pose for photographs which the artist would paint into advertisements.
“The Coke people would tell him what they wanted,” explained Lara. “They were usually seasonal, something like boating for the summer, or fishing for the fall. I would hold the props, and they would take pictures.”
It was the old “pause that refreshes” ad campaign that Sundblom became famous for.
Sundblom became Lara’s stepfather when her parents divorced and her mother married him.
“I was delighted because I loved him,” Lara said.
From then on, Lara enlisted many of her high school friends from the Chicago Latin School for Girls to help out with the modeling. Consequently, their faces appeared on magazines and calendars.
It was an experience most of the girls never forgot, judging by a recent school reunion, Lara said.
“That’s almost all we talked about,” Lara said. “The other girls had saved clips of the old ads. It was their moment of celebrity. We were poster girls.”
For Lara, however, her modeling career carried on. Her legs were used by George Petty for the Petty Girl in Esquire. She modeled for Prudential Life Insurance, and, in the early 1960s used her entire family in a Swift’s Thanksgiving ad.
But the Coca-Cola ads by Sundblom, who died 10 years ago, remain the most famous. The Sundblom originals, especially his Santa Claus paintings which date back to the early 1930s, are collectors’ items.
Today, Lara is a 23-year resident of Laguna Beach and is in project management for a local geology consulting firm. She lives within walking distance of Ruby’s on Pacific Coast Highway.
It was in a Ruby’s in Crystal Court in Costa Mesa, however, that she first saw the old ads. She admits to getting a thrill when she saw them again.
“I walked into the building, looked on the wall and there I was,” she said.