“She’s got legs, she knows how to use them …” — “Legs,” ZZ Top
Although ZZ Top recorded “Legs” more than 30 years after Maricopa resident Gloria Van Deweel Vakos launched her Broadway, modeling and television career, it might well have served as her theme song.
In March 1952, 19-year-old Van Deweel bought a $28 train ticket from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City. She had a whopping $100 in her pocket and a dream — to be an actress and a model.
“I had wanted to act since I was a child; I can’t even remember when I didn’t want to. My ‘career’ probably started with playacting, staging plays with my dolls.”
Pictures of those dolls hang in her immaculately kept and tastefully decorated home in The Villages, where she lives with her pets: three dogs, Paco Vakos, a Chihuahua, and two Pomeranians, Georgie Porgie and Cora Jane; a Siamese cat, Paws, who adopted her seven years ago; and three parakeets, Peeperonie, Cukkoo and Lulu.
One room is lined with framed pictures of commercials, performances, signed posters, autographed articles and performance reviews — all testimonies to her long career as an actress and model. Throughout her home are more pictures, those of her family — her late husband, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren — “the loves of my life.”
Born in a Cleveland, hospital in 1932, her family immediately returned to their home in Burton, Ohio, population 950, where she grew up, taking advantage of the limited opportunities to perform — high school plays, joining the drama club and being a majorette and cheerleader. After graduation, she moved back to Cleveland where she became an Arthur Murray dance instructor.
When she headed to New York, she had no contacts, no friends, no mentors, but she wasn’t scared. “My parents taught us that we could do anything we wanted.”
She took a room at the Barbizon for Women (“the elite place for actresses to stay,” she said) and scrimped to save money by doing her own dry cleaning. She religiously monitored newspapers and trade publications for acting jobs. “The New York Journal American had an open call notice for Josh Logan’s Broadway show, ‘Wish You Were Here,’ so I decided to audition,” she said.
“I had to take a cab because I didn’t know where the theater was. When we got there, I almost chickened out, but the cabbie prompted me to give it a try,” she said.
And trying paid off. Unlike so many aspiring young actors and actresses who wait years for their big break, after just three weeks in the Big Apple, she landed three job offers — one at the Copa Cabana, one at the Latin Quarter and the one she chose, Logan’s Broadway production.
Of the 5,000 who tried out, 14 were selected — including Van Deweel as a member of the chorus where she sang and danced, twirled the baton and played a bathing beauty in the production that became a smash hit, running 568 performances.
But it wasn’t just this small part that launched her career — her long legs helped.
“Josh liked my legs so much that he chose me as the show’s ‘poster’ girl. That poster was the show’s trademark, published on the program cover and used in all publicity materials.”
Ultimately, Van Deweel’s small part became much bigger. She became the understudy for Leila Martin, who had a leading role as Gussie and then performed the role for two weeks.
Her performance and her poster presence brought her to the attention of such influential theater critics as Earl Wilson, syndicated gossip columnist for the New York Post, and Walter Winchell, writer of the New York Daily Mirror’s syndicated column, “On-Broadway.”
In his column, “It Happened Last Night,” Wilson picked her as one of America’s Six Most Glamorous Girls (for “Best New Figure”), putting her in the same company as Virginia Mayo, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Eva Gabor and Julie Wilson.
Winchell mentioned her numerous times, including a July 20, 1952, item when he called her “the beautiful thing you see (in a swimsuit) in the show’s ads . . . an accomplished dancer in the cast.” In his Aug. 13, 1952, column, he mentioned her again — this time misspelling her name as Gloria Van Dewheel.
Not one to let that go, she sent him a note correcting the mistake. Winchell published her note in his Sept. 5, 1952, column: “Dear Mr. Winchell,” passionately writes Gloria Van Deweel, “I really appreciate all the plugicity (to quote one of your word-weddings) but there is neither a heel in my name, nor one in my life.”
That wit, combined a growing recognition as a model, contributed to her popularity as a guest on popular shows, including Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Joe Franklin, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson.
“Ed called me because Esquire Magazine had named me Miss October in 1954; Steve was a friend; and I auditioned for Johnny’s show,” she said.
“I think I got called so many times because, as a model, I wasn’t ‘snooty.’ I talked to the audience … talked about what I was modeling. I was friendly and I think the audience liked that. I think it made me popular. I like people and I can talk to anyone. Maybe that’s why I got called so often,” she said.
Her modeling career took off about as fast as her acting career. To supplement her income and continue working when the play ended, Van Deweel registered with several modeling and advertising agencies. The first modeling agency was John Robert Powers, at the time New York’s biggest and most prestigious firm.
Through Powers and other agencies, she became the model for their clients’ products, including:
- Fruit of the Loom which, in December 1953 named her Hosiery Queen for having “the most beautiful legs since hose were invented”
- Anti-Freeze, whose manufacturers dubbed her “Miss Anti-Freeze." Sprite; Maxwell House Coffee, Palmolive and Tide laundry detergents; Halo Shampoo (with Tommy Sands); the first Corvette commercial and the first retractable hardtop Ford Commercial (“I think this was the first and only one,” she laughed).
- Budweiser displayed at the World Series.
- Print ads for Kool and Salem, and a TV commercial for Kent which showed during the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan (“and I don’t even smoke!”).
She also did album and magazine covers. Playboy offered her $10,000 to be a centerfold, which she promptly rejected even though the money was a small fortune at the time. “I was horrified! What would my parents have thought?”