Charlotte Oelschlegel (1898-1984): Ice Queen

Before there was Ice Capades,  before there was Holiday On Ice, before there was Cirque du Soleil, there was the Hippodrome,  5200 seats of theatrical goodness (this was New York – nothing like it on earth).  It was the venue for that needed filling, and Charles Dillingham was just the guy to fill them.

He had taken over the place seats of the from the Shuberts, and those 5200 seats needed filling.  The Schuberts had already gone through the line of elephants act, the wild west show, and any number of water shows.  Dillingham had bigger things in mind.

Job applicants filled in the forms listing their qualifications:  “drive a car, ride a bicycle, dive, ice or roller skate, ride horseback, plus the usual requirement of quality and range of  voice. Dancing – the basic one – was accepted for granted.” *   Among the final cast were  such now forgotten luminaries as Arthur Deagon the Chubby Comedian and Harry Griffiths, The Jaunty Juvenile;  and the unforgettable John Philip Sousa). Continue reading

Marguerite Joséphine Wiemer, aka Mademoiselle George, 1787-1867: A Woman of Many Parts

Her father was a tailor and the first fifer for a Lorraine Regiment but who yearned for a life of showbiz and eventually lived his dream in a small theatre in Bayeaux, he conducting the orchestra, his wife playing the soubrette roles.  When their daughter was old enough, she too wound up on the boards.

It was a provincial affair, but shuffled along well enough.  Then, in one of those dramatic turns best suited for bad movies, Mademoiselle Raucourt, célèbre tragédienne happened to be passing through, saw the troupe and more to the point, saw something special in the now fourteen year old Marguerite.  She whisked the young thing off the Paris and and put her through the paces, which eventually meant entree to the Comedie Francais.  Her first  major role was as Clytemnestra in Iphigenia in Aulis. (She sounds a bit young for the role, but what is acting if not a convincing lie?)

Among others in the audience was Lucien Bonaparte, brother to the First Consul.  Mlle Georges’ comment:   “In spite of his love for his wife, I think he rather liked me.” Continue reading

Gaby Deslys, 1881-1920: Material Girl

Norman Douglas on the subject of Menton writes in passing that the Riviera seems to have produced no persons of note other  than Andrea Doria and Gaby Deslys.

Clearly a joke that left them in the aisles in 1922, but hers was not a name I was familiar with. My wife, given the name without context, thought she might have been be one of Yves St Laurent’s muses.   Good guess, but wrong.

She was a dancer and and chanteuse and one of the most notorious stage presences of her day.  The Madonna of the aughts and teens,  making up for modest innate talent with colossal work ethic and a flair for publicity.  A multi-millionaire at the time of her death, she hung her numerous hats on the Corniche (229 Avenue Kennedy, Marsailles) in the sort of place that might entice even Gerard Depardieu back to France. Continue reading

Isabella Andreini, 1562-1604: An Actor’s Life For Me

Cineasts may remember the film Stage Beauty all about Nell Gwynne convincing Charles II to keep Edward Kynaston from playing female roles that could be better served by first female actress Margaret Hewes (1645-1719).

Behind the times as usual.  By the time Ms Hewes was born, the Italians had already buried and praised Isabella Andreini, as one of the finest exponents of Commedia dell’Arte.

Rather modern in concept, was Commedia dell’Arte, performance art by  stock characters  – Pulcinello, Arlecchino –  often with stock masks (a throwback to Roman stage craft) and very loose scripts if scripts there were at all. Think An Evening At The Improv,  with a touch of audience participation.  You had to be quick to take on that kind of job. Continue reading

Charles Dickens 1812 -1870: An Actor Turned Writer on a Writer Turned Actor

Charles Dickens and The Great Theatre of the World by  Simon Callow, Vintage Books.

Moliere did it, by all accounts so did Shakespeare, and when you consider that the actor’s greatest tool is observation, and their greatest use of it, characterization, you wonder why writers, who also have to create characters, don’t cross this line more often than they do.  But writers are introverted people – aren’t they? They are alienated, self absorbed, at odds with the cosmos they inhabit, unconcerned by such quotidian niceties as the physical world around them – aren’t they?

Maybe not.  Charles Dickens certainly was not.  If anyone was ever forced into this world like a needle into an epidermis, then surely it was Dickens.  He was the most tirelessly observant person anyone could remember ever meeting. Without looking at anything in particular, Dickens wrote of himself as a young man, he had missed nothing.  How many of us can say the same? Continue reading

Richard Burton 1925-1984: Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, Yale University Press.

One of the great pleasures of Melvyn Bragg’s biography of Richard Burton is the liberal sprinkling from the man’s diaries.  Bragg’s book passed between my wife and me for some weeks when it came out, the funnier selections read aloud, and we regretted mightily that the rest of Burton’s own prose was out of reach.

Good news came last year when it was announced that the whole of it would be given to the Swansea University with a view to eventual publication.

Better news now that about a quarter of the whole has been published.  This was the stuff we’d been waiting for.*

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Ira Aldridge, 1807-1867: The African Roscius*

Beatles’ fans are generally hip to the figure of Pablo Fanque, black circus entrepreneur and accomplished acrobat.   It’s all laid out in the song and the poster.

Not a lot of contemporary posters for Ira Aldridge, whose stage career was a bit more upscale.  Certainly in his time he was better known.  Pable Fanque was a star of England.  Aldridge was an international star.

He was a New York native, son of free blacks and beneficiary of a classical education at the African Free School of New York.  He also spent time at the Park Theatre in lower Manhattan and was soon working at African Grove.

In a path that became to all too familiar (think Josephine Baker and Nina Simone among others) , he thought he would find more opportunity in Europe than in America.  He was right.  He attended the University of Glasgow for a period, but was soon back on the stage.  At first assumed to be a novelty – fancy an actor who could play black without burnt cork! – Aldridge tended to be somewhat typecast:  (The Ethiopian, or the Quadroon of the Mango Grove; The Negro’s Curse; The Death of Cristophe, King of Hayti). Continue reading

Ellen Lawless Ternan, 1839-1914: Best of Times, Worst of Times

Her name was Ellen. She was an actress born to an actress mother and had two older sisters who were also actresses. The Ternan family had been treading the boards long before Ellen came along and the talent in the family belonged to her mother rather than to her actor/manager father who died early and tragically. Ellen Lawless Ternan struggled along after that death with her mother and sisters trying to eke out a living on the London stage.

For many years it must have seemed like a thankless struggle and an unprofitable one to the little family, but then, when Ellen was eighteen, a privately produced melodrama went into Wilkie Collins production which required professional actresses. It was called The Frozen Deep and it featured among its principal players, the writer Charles Dickens. Continue reading

Praskovia Kovalyova, 1768-1803 : Power of Love

Sentimental Americans like to point to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the conscience of the abolitionist movement.  The little lady who started the Civil War, as Lincoln put it.

What about the Russians?  The serf system, effectively slavery, was something a parallel.  Of course the  gentry were fine with it, the church was okay with it (they had a whole lot of land and the souls that went with it  – yet the whole thing was outlawed in 1861,  two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, four years before the Thirteenth Amendment.

Another case of cherchez la femme, it is said, in this case, not a novelist, but a singer, a diva even, Praskovia Kovalyova. Continue reading

Hedy Lemarr 1913-2000/George Antheil 1900-1959: What’s It All About, Hedy?

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
Richard Rhodes, Knopf, 2012.

Of course we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover,  but honestly, what are we to make of a Come Hither Hedy sliding down a golden torpedo?  Is this supposed to encourage the sexy girls to bone up on calculus? Or the smart girls to reach for the feather boas?  Work those propellers, baby!  And what exactly are these inventions in the subtitle? I mean, judging from that golden torpedo, well, a guy could get the wrong idea. Or the right idea. Or, or….*

Okay, Americans love an underdog and what better scoop than the Hollywood starlet coming up with a high tech solution to a serious wartime need?   The story’s been kicking around in one form or another since 1942, and for the short version, the details scarcely mattered, not when put next to the glam (hence the cover shot).  Kind of disrespectful of the promised story of intellectual achievement, I would say.  Kind of disrespectful of her lab partner George Antheil, too, which, along with the zing zing picture, may say something about the convoluted state of current sexual politics.

What’s it all about, Hedy? Let’s start at the beginning.

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