Coca-Cola model shares stories of glory days

Published 8:21 pm Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Submitted photo William Johnston, left,  collects coca-cola memrobilia and recently had the chance to meet one of the soft drink company’s food tray models. Johnson said meeting Alice Jean Anderson, right, was  one of most interesting things he has ever had the pleasure of taking part in.

Submitted photo
William Johnston, left, collects coca-cola memorabilia and recently had the chance to meet one of the soft drink company’s food tray models. Johnson said meeting Alice Jean Anderson, right, was one of most interesting things he has ever had the pleasure of taking part in.

William Johnson has always had a deep appreciation for “old stuff.”

The “Troy boy” is a collector of several things but he always keeps an eye out for something new to him but with collectable value.

He was visiting a neighbor in Apalachicola, who was in the process of moving, and happened to notice a Coca-Cola tin food tray leaning against the wall.

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“I’d seen those Coke food trays and recognized that one as an original,” Johnston said. “Back in the early to mid-1900s, Coca-Cola used the trays with beautiful young women to advertise their product. I was interested.”

Johnston became even more interested when the neighbor showed him some newspaper clippings about the young woman, Alice Jean Anderson, who now, at the age of 97, makes her home in Apalachicola.

“That really peaked my interest in the Coca-Cola trays and I bought several off e-Bay,” he said. “A couple of them are originals and the others are reproductions.”

Johnston was so intrigued by the fact that one of the original Coca-Cola models was living in Apalachicola where his family has a second home that he was determined to meet her.

With a little “finagling,” Johnston was able to talk with the daughter of Alice Jean Anderson and arranged to have brunch with her last Sunday.

Johnston said he wasn’t sure what he would say or what she would say but he was excited and honored to be able to meet someone which such an interesting story to tell.

But, there was no reason to be concerned. Johnston said Alice Jean Anderson was just as open and delightful as he thought she would be. “She grew up in Chicago and her family was not wealthy but even in during difficult economic times she got to take dancing,” he said. “She was only 16 when she left home for New York.  She was a dancer so she got a job with the Rockettes and made big bucks — $35 a week at Radio City Music Hall,” 
Johnston said, and like all the Coca-Cola models, Anderson was the darling of many men.

“She said that, one night, the pianist, a Mr. Gibbs, at Radio City Music Hall came pounding on her dressing room door and asked her to go out for a drink,” Johnston said. “She told him she didn’t drink and closed the door on him. But he kept coming back and she married him and they had two daughters.”

Johnston said while Anderson was working for Coca-Cola, she made $5 for each one-hour photo shoot. The pictures were converted to paintings by Haddon Sunblom, who painted the Coca-Cola Santa Claus and poster girls.

Johnson said the idea behind the Coca-Cola food trays, posters and coasters was that young men would buy nickel Cokes with hopes of finding their own Coca-Cola girl.

“For about 20 years (1930s to 1950s), Alice Jean Anderson’s picture was on billboards, buses and buildings all across the United States and five other continents,” he said. “She said once she was in London and got off the plane and saw her picture on a huge, flashing sign. She said that was amazing to her.”

Johnston said the Coca-Cola model has a wonderful sense of humor and was very entertaining.

“She told one story about when she was in New York and got in the ring with boxer Joe Lewis and his opponent,” he said. “She was in the middle of the ring holding up a sign and walking from one side to the other and her dress fell down and the crowd went crazy. She laughed a lot about that.”

Johnston said Anderson is also an artist and once had an art studio and a dance studio.

“She lived in Chicago, New York and then Miami,” he said. “When her dance studio was damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, she moved to Apalachicola.

“Mrs. Anderson – Gibbs – said she can still kick up her heels when she wants to,” Johnston said, laughing.

Johnston said Anderson doesn’t get any royalties from the sale of the reproduction trays that continue to be popular with collectors of Coca-Cola memorabilia.

“She said that doesn’t matter because she had her fame, so to speak,” he said. “She was very gracious in talking to me and she autographed all of my Coke trays with her picture on them.”

Johnston said the former Coca-Cola model said it’s flattering to be asked to autograph Coca-Cola memorabilia.

Of course with Alice Jean Anderson’s autograph on Johnston’s Coke trays, even the reproductions took a big leap in value.

“I’m not going to sell them so that doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “It was just an honor to meet her. There probably aren’t many of those Coca-Cola models still around. At age 97, Mrs. Gibbs – Alice Jean Anderson is still a very attractive lady and she seemed to enjoy telling about her life and I sure enjoyed hearing about it.”