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Factoring in Beauty : A Hollywood Museum Celebrates the Artistry of a Cosmetics King

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Joan Crawford said, “The most important thing a woman can have--next to her talent, of course--is her hairdresser,” she could have been talking about Max Factor, the makeup maestro of Hollywood.

Today, he is perhaps best known as a brand name. But in the heyday of Hollywood, Factor created a series of makeup firsts--false eyelashes, eyebrow pencils, lip gloss and face powder brushes--all of which are displayed in their original packaging at the Max Factor Beauty Museum in Hollywood.

Opened in 1984 as a temporary exhibit for the Olympics, the lavishly restored Art Deco museum is still going strong, with expansion in the works.

It’s a fascinating memorial to Factor, a Polish-born wig maker, who moved to the United States in 1904. His riches-to-rags story is a curious twist on the usual immigrants’ tale.

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As cosmetician to the court of Nicholas II and owner of his own business, Factor arrived in the United States a wealthy man, but he was swindled out of his fortune by his partner in a wig-selling venture at the St. Louis Exposition.

Factor relocated to Los Angeles in 1908, opening a barbershop on South Central Avenue, where he sold hair pieces and imported Leichner makeup to theatrical types from nearby movie studios. He also experimented with his own products, like “Kill ‘Em Quick” shampoo for head lice.

In 1914, Factor invented Flexible Greasepaint after customers Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand complained that his imported makeup dried out and cracked under movie lights.

Until his death in 1938, Factor kept pace with rapidly developing movie-making techniques by creating innovative makeup products such as Panchromatic Makeup and water-based Pan-Cake. His legacy continued with his son, Max, Jr., who created Pan-Stik in 1948.

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The Max Factor Beauty Museum--at the same site Factor moved to in 1928--is a tribute to the enduring fascination with the movies’ most dazzling era.

According to acting curator Randy Koss, who conducts witty, anecdotal tours for groups of 12 or more, “because all the beautiful glamour of Hollywood is gone, it’s a place to go back and say, ‘Oh, gee. The stars came here. They walked in these rooms. They were made beautiful here.’ ”

Koss still has an appointment book showing that on June 7, 1934--a typical day--Fredric March, Ronald Coleman, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford all came to the Factor salon for wig fittings or beauty treatments.

Framed vintage ads featuring almost every major female star from the 1930s to 1950s line the walls of the museum’s nine rooms. Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Judy Garland, Dietrich and the ubiquitous Crawford were just a few who endorsed Max Factor products for the princely remuneration of $1 a year and a free plug for their latest picture.

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The four-story Max Factor building is also one of the few remaining architectural jewels in Hollywood.

Renovated by S. Charles Lee--best known for designing movie houses like the Westwood Bruin and downtown’s Los Angeles Theatre--the building officially opened Nov. 26, 1935, with a party for 3,000 invitees, but 8,000 turned up. (One possible explanation for the crowd is that it was Election Day and all the taverns were closed; the party had a bar on every floor and in the elevator.)

For the opening of his beauty salon, Factor created four specialized make-over rooms to compliment women’s hair and skin coloring. At the party, Jean Harlow cut the ribbon of the blue-painted salon “For Blondes Only,” with Ginger Rogers performing the honors in the green room for redheads, Rochelle Hudson for “brownettes” in their peach-colored room and Claudette Colbert in the brunettes’ pink salon.

Today, each of those rooms, restored to its 1935 splendor, is devoted to a different decade in Factor history. Display cabinets are crammed with beauty products from each era, marketed in what was obviously considered the height of innovative packaging at the time: 1940s shocking pink makeup containers adorned with white and gold plastic feathers; 1960s “Royal Regiment” men’s cologne bottled in decanters of bagpipe-playing Scots guards. Some packaging, like the 1960s’ Color Carnival makeup, is back in fashion, its Day-Glo-colored pressed powder compacts decorated with daisies.

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Other rooms contain everything from Max Factor Sr.'s barbershop lather brush and clippers to posters of current spokesmodel Jaclyn Smith. Two short films tell visitors all they need to know about the company.

The museum’s pride and joy is the Scroll of Fame, one of the world’s largest collections of celebrity autographs. Rival gossip queens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons both signed--at opposite ends of the scroll. Naturally.

Some of the most fascinating displays are signed promotional contracts of Hollywood’s best-loved actresses. In addition to early 1930s deals with Crawford, Betty Grable and Lucille Ball, there’s a uncharacteristic 1931 “come hither” shot of a blond Bette Davis with dark, penciled eyebrows. Rita Cansino signed up so early in her career, she hadn’t yet changed her name to Rita Hayworth. On her contract dated Sept. 2, 1931, the “It” girl, Clara Bow, added an unsolicited handwritten testimonial: “For the last six years, I have used Max Factor’s makeup and find it the only satisfying makeup on the market.”

In the wig room are Norma Shearer’s “Marie Antoinette” ringlets, the strawberry blond curls of Billie Burke’s Glinda the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz,” and the hairpiece worn by Rudolph Valentino in 1924’s “Monsieur Beaucaire.”

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Koss tells a story that Marlene Dietrich insisted on having compressed gold, costing $60 an ounce, sprinkled onto her wigs to give them an on-screen sparkle. A Max Factor employee once combed $24.32 worth of gold dust from a fake Dietrich do.

The undeniable campy quality of the museum only adds to its attraction. Where else would you find a 1940s ad for the Deluxe Makeup Set which can be reused to serve sandwiches? (“In glowing blue with ‘moderne’ gold and white design. . .the box becomes a charming twosome of party trays. And all this for $8.50!”) Or see a photo of a porky Joan Crawford and Anita Page promoting Max Factor hand cream (and their 1928 picture “Our Dancing Daughters”). Or learn that 3,000 extras in the 1925 “Ben Hur” were hosed down--300 at a time--with 600 gallons of Max Factor’s Liquid Body Makeup in different shades to give them the appropriate ethnic look.

Two other popular exhibits are the Beauty Calibrator and the Kissing Machine. In 1932, Factor invented the Beauty Calibrator, which looks like a medieval torture device, to measure faces to within 1/100th of an inch of what he decreed as perfection--a set of impossible proportions that not even the screen’s most radiant beauty could satisfy. Luckily for business, Factor could rectify any deficiencies with his makeup.

The Kissing Machine, or Mechanical Osculator, is a replica of the 1939 original created by Max, Jr. to test the indelibility of lipstick. Two young Max Factor employees, an engaged couple, were paid to pucker up for 30 minutes every morning. When the pair tired, rubber molds of their lips were taken and attached to a pressure gauge. Tissue paper was inserted between the pairs of rubberized lips to see how many prints it took before the lipstick wore off.

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The museum undergoes constant expansion and renovation. Two years ago, in return for allowing filming of “The Two Jakes,” Paramount Pictures restored the main salon to its 1935 glory, copying 1930s furniture to pair with the museum’s originals, and regilding the badly damaged antique display cases.

Next on Koss’ agenda is a room featuring 1980s products and ads, including a poster of then-unknown teen-ager Whitney Houston modeling Maxi makeup. Koss also plans to exhibit the original makeup manufacturing machinery.

With glamour decidedly lacking in modern Hollywood, the museum’s popularity endures, attracting visitors fascinated by a bygone era. It’s the quintessential Hollywood dream factory, devoted to transforming mere mortals into dazzling stars. Fans aren’t looking for what’s beneath the greasepaint; they’re looking at the greasepaint itself.

Max Factor Museum of Beauty: 1666 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, (213) 463-6668. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Admission: Free. Guided tours by appointment or groups for 12 or more. * RELATED STORY: For more on the Beauty Museum and Old Hollywood, see Los Angeles Times Magazine.

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