Remember When Coca Cola Made Lana Turner Famous?

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Silver screen icon and pin-up model Lana Turner became one of the most highly successful actresses of the early 20th century. During the mid-1940s, she was one of the highest paid women in the country and earned critical acclaim for her roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Somewhere I’ll Find You. She eventually made the foray into television and theater, although struggles in her personal life often overshadowed her acting prowess in newspaper headlines. Turner passed away on June 29, 1995 from complications from cancer and on the week of what would have been the screen siren’s 98th birthday, CR remembers the oft-disputed story of how the actress was first discovered.

Turner’s humble beginnings are well-known, having grown up in a small mining community in Idaho, but the story of her finding fame is the stuff of Hollywood legend. By her own account, 16-year-old Turner skipped typing class when she was a junior at Hollywood High School in January 1937. She reportedly went across the street to the Top Hat Malt Shop, located on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and McCadden Place, and bought a Coca-Cola. It was there where she was spotted by William R. Wilkerson, then publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, who was captivated by her beauty. He then referred Turner, with her mother’s permission, to talent agent Zeppo Marx, who then introduced her to film director Mervyn LeRoy. Turner later changed her name from Judy to Lana, signed a contract with Warner Brothers that same year, and the rest is history.

Erroneous versions of the story placed Turner at Schwab’s, not Top Hat Cafe. Some also mention that Turner ran into LeRoy himself and not Wilkerson. According to Wilkerson’s son, W.R. Wilkerson III, his father procured a business card after seeing her at the soda shop and asked Turner „if she would like to be in the pictures.“ Judy seemed confused and unsure, but reportedly told him, „I’ll have to ask my mother.“

The story of Turner’s discovery became so infamous that the owner of the Top Hat later placed a metal plaque on the seat in which she sat on that morning. Consequently, the soda shop became overrun with girls who were eager to meet Wilkerson (who stopped going there as a result.) Here’s to a chance encounter at a soda shop catapulting one actress to eternal stardom. Happy birthday, Lana!

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