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The Great American Revue

The Act I Finale

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Swan Wood / photograph by Moody., Digital ID variety_0149v, New York Public LibraryThe Great American Revue is coming to the end of its run at the Vincent Astor Gallery, LPA. It employed Library for the Performing Arts treasures to represent the 15 revue series on Broadway, from the first Follies in 1907 — to the Pins & Needles series in 1939. The blog channel will continue and for the next few weeks, will focus on some of the treasures that we had to edit out of the exhibition.

For plotless revues as well as musicals and operetta, the Act I finales were carefully planned. They needed to be fast moving, spectacular and filled with performer specialties. They were designed to leave the audience smiling and humming. The Act I finales for the Passing Shows of 1912 and 1913 were classic examples. We focused on the PS 1912 in the exhibition (on a previous blog) for its recognizable visual parodies of Kismet and Ballet Russe harem sets, as well as Pavlova’s Autumn Bacchanale. The PS 13 one (The Capitol Steps) was even more complex with too many topical references to fit into a caption.

The scene took place on a multi-tiered stage-filling staircase, decorated to resemble the Capitol Steps. Descending down the various levels, Dance Director Ned Wayburn staged a chorus of military precision dancers (think Rockettes), a ballet dancer (Bessie Clayton), a sword dancer (Swan Wood, pictured above), an elegant exhibition ballroom team (Wellington Cross & Lois Josephine), a “tangled-foot" tandem team (Moon & Morris), and a slew of character comics doing Julius Caesar in togas. There is a curator's dilemna — what do you do when the political underpinnings for an artifact is based on reprehensible politics? The entire scene was a put down of the Spring 1913 suffragist march and pageant on the Treasury building steps in Washington DC. I want to thank Claire Barco, who did great research while at LPA with the University of Michigan alternative spring break program and located images in the Library of Congress that clearly show the suffragists' use of the Treasury steps.

The dialogue referred to Emmeline Pankhurst, the British Suffrage leader who had been in the United States for speaking engagements. The references were complex but uniformly negative. The character name was “Mrs. George Monroe Potiphar Crankhurst.” The Crankhurst you can figure out, but the rest of the character name requires serious footnoting. “Mrs. Potiphar” refers to the recent production of the 1913 biblical epic Joseph and his Brethren and its seductress character Potiphar’s Wife. George Monroe was a female impersonator, whose stock character was a fat, unpleasant Irish housekeeper who continuously insulted her (off-stage) employers. In Summer 1913 terms, the character name was as insulting and anti-feminist as you could get.

I’m hoping that the Suffragists in the cast and audience, at least, walked out fuming.

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