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Beauty on Wheels : Merle Norman Collection Contains Classic Cars and Unusual Musical Instruments

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Merle Norman Cosmetics might be guilty of the greatest cover-up since the invention of makeup.

How else does one explain situating the company’s Beauty Collection in Sylmar ?

The building itself, a brown and mustard edifice, resembles a furniture warehouse or data processing center. Stranger still, the site is called San Sylmar, a takeoff on the Hearst Castle of San Simeon. But here there are no hilltops commanding majestic vistas of the Pacific Ocean--only uninspiring views of low-slung industrial complexes and working-class neighborhoods.

“If I hadn’t been sure of the address, I would have gone right by the place,” says Agnes Mulligan, a Denver visitor waiting nervously in line for the start of the museum’s free two-hour automotive and musical tour.

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The anxious glances of Mulligan and about 80 other tourists finally find some relief as two 10-foot high, 2,400-pound cast bronze doors swing open, revealing a treasure trove of rare cars, hood ornaments, mechanical pianos and music boxes. The exotica represents the lifelong collection of J. B. Nethercutt, Merle Norman’s 78-year-old chairman.

“He was just a private collector,” says Dick Nolan, who manages San Sylmar for Nethercutt. “He wasn’t planning to build a museum, but it became such a collection that it just about had to be seen.”

Why Sylmar?

Nolan says with an air of pragmatism: “A division of Merle Norman used to manufacture trap-shooting targets here in the ‘50s, and we still owned the land.”

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Byron Matson, the head curator at the museum since its opening in August, 1972, quickly establishes the ground rules for his curious guests.

“You can never be overdressed at San Sylmar,” says Matson, impeccably attired in an alabaster silk suit and waistcoat, accented with a burgundy tie, diamond stick pin and pocket watch. “That is why we ask that you don’t wear shorts, blue jeans or halter tops,” he adds, quickly giving his guests the once-over.

He also prepares his visitors for the “fine functional art” they are about to see. “San Sylmar is living beauty,” Matson says, “because every piece in the collection has been restored to its original operating condition. Nothing is roped off. Everything here is meant to be used.”

To keep the art functioning, San Sylmar employs a dozen full-time mechanics “to exercise” the cars and a trio of musical experts to keep the instruments playing.

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The Grand Salon, the first stop on the tour, was designed by Nethercutt to recall the sumptuous auto showrooms of the early ‘20s. Mauve marble pillars soar toward a 36-foot recessed ceiling decorated in 24-karat gold leaf. Bavarian chandeliers, each constructed with more than 1,500 prisms, illuminate a room that is one-third the size of a football field.

Many of the Nethercutt’s automobiles have earned their reputations on the road, from a 1912 De Dion Roadster containing the world’s first V-8 engine to the first Volkswagen imported to the United States in 1946. San Sylmar also houses the complete Phantom series of Rolls-Royces.

Other autos in the collection owe their cachet to their former owners. Star cars include Rudolph Valentino’s 1923 Avions Viosin, Fatty Arbuckle’s 1923 McFarlane Knickerbocker Cabriolet and Irene Dunne’s 1931 Packard.

Matson says that because some cars arrive as “complete basket cases,” the restoration process can take more than three years--two years of research and 18 months of exacting work in the museum’s metal, engine, upholstering and paint shops.

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Adds Nolan: “Many collectors don’t have their own restoration shop, and they’ll send out the work. But then you can’t always do the fine work needed, especially if you’re under a budget.”

Nethercutt, whose portrait hangs on the salon’s north wall, faces few budgetary restraints, thanks to a network of 2,400 Merle Norman Cosmetics studios in the United States and Canada. Annual retail sales of the privately held company are about $150 million, Nolan says.

There’s nothing cosmetic, however, about Nethercutt’s personal success. “It seemed to me that he worked so hard that he never had much time for hobbies or pleasures,” says Nolan, his associate for 40 years.

In the ‘20s, Nethercutt, an orphan, moved from South Bend, Ind., to Santa Monica to live with his aunt and uncle, Merle and Andy Norman. There he assisted the childless Merle Norman in her fledgling cosmetics business. The business was incorporated in 1931 and slowly prospered, based on the then-revolutionary idea of offering free make-overs and beauty demonstrations to customers.

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Six decades later, San Sylmar clearly remains the house that Nethercutt and the Merle Norman Cosmetics empire built.

On the mezzanine overlooking the showroom, Nethercutt has assembled more than 1,100 hood ornaments and radiator caps. One mascot, a gleaming coiled cobra, was a gift from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to Rudolph Valentino for his completion of the movie, “The Cobra.”

During his San Sylmar visits, Nethercutt works at his Louis XV desk, one of five commissioned in Paris in the 1960s. Several inlays of wood, done in marquetry, look like scenes painted on the desk.

Yet the treasures on the mezzanine serve only as a prelude to Nethercutt’s favorite room, called “Cloud 99.”

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“You know what it feels like to be on Cloud 9,” Matson says. “Well, we think so much of our music room that we decided to add another 9.”

To reach this lofty station, visitors must ascend the 42 steps of the spiral “Stairway to the Stars,” named for the Nethercutt’s favorite song. The music phrase also decorates the walls of the stairwell.

In Cloud 99, the tour reaches its crescendo. Music floods the room as each mechanical instrument gives a virtuoso performance.

For example, the Popper “Gladiator” Orchestrion, a forerunner of the jukebox, displays its full orchestral range with the use of a piano, mandolin, xylophone, bells and many ranks of pipes and percussion instruments.

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Like most of the automatic musical instruments at San Sylmar, it is programmed by a perforated paper roll. The air pump system is powered by an electric motor.

Another favorite is the Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina. Manufactured in Germany in about 1912, it features three violins played automatically by a rotating horsehair bow and accompanied by an expression piano.

The mechanical music boxes charm the eyes as well. Spangled globes, Tiffany lamps, papier-mache dancers and stained glass all glow with the start of the music.

The tour ends as the 97-key Bosendorfer piano and four-console Wurlitzer organ perform a duet of “Ghost Writers in the Sky.” With no artist present, the moving keyboards produce an eerie, spectral effect.

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As the house lights turn up, Matson distributes literature about the tour and Merle Norman Cosmetics.

Mulligan, the tourist from Denver, pokes through her plastic goody bag and seems disappointed not to find any free cosmetic samples.

“Well,” she says unconvincingly, “beauty isn’t skin deep; it’s still what’s inside that counts.”

The Beauty Collection tour at 15180 Bledsoe St., Sylmar, is by reservation only at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

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To get there: Exit 210 Freeway at Polk Street, south to Glenoaks Boulevard. Turn right and then left on Bledsoe Street. Or take Interstate 5, exit at Roxford Street and turn right. At San Fernando Road., turn right to Bledsoe Street. Then turn left.

For information or reservations: (818) 367-2251.


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