04 November 2012

The Gypsy Robe

Many professions have superstitions.  Possibly sailors have more than most others—and maybe ballplayers; but I’d venture to say that high up on the list are actors, some of whose beliefs go back centuries.  Most “civilians” (as one of my acting teachers used to call non-theater folk, the muggles of the stage world) know that actors, directors, and stage hands all wish each other “Break a leg!” instead of “Good luck!” a ploy to ward off misfortune.  (Dancers, understandably, don’t use this expression, I hear.)  The common explanation of the reason behind this tradition is that actors believe that calling for good luck tempts the gods of theater to rain down the opposite.  Others explain that by wishing another actor good luck, you are giving away you own luck.  (I’ve always wondered, though I’ve never checked, if this theater greeting is related to the similar German expression, Hals- und Beinbruch, which literally means “neck and leg break” and is used as a good-luck wish.  It always seemed an infelicitous thought to offer someone at the top of a ski slope just about to schuss down the mountain.)

Some outsiders have heard that its dangerous to name Shakespeare’s Macbeth or to quote from it inside a theater—the play’s believed to be cursed—so we say “The Scottish Play” and refrain from citing lines from it outside a performance.  One of the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, productions of the play are said to have been followed by disasters since its début in 1606.  Other aspects of the play have lent force to the superstitions attached to it, including King James I’s fear of witchcraft and magic.  The play had been written for James who was said to have traced his lineage back to Banquo, predicted in the play to “get kings, though thou be none” by the Weird Sisters.  (Some even believe that the incantations Shakespeare wrote for the three witches are actual spells that were used in England at the time and that uttering them in a performance summons evil after the show.)

If someone quotes from Macbeth or speaks its title in a theater, the hex can be averted by quoting from The Merchant of Venice,  considered the Bard’s lucky play: "Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on you."  Or the unlucky actor can leave the dressing room, run around three times, knock on the door, and ask to be allowed back in.  Cursing or spitting is frequently thrown in just to be sure.

It’s also bad luck to whistle back stage in a theater—but that one comes from a fact-based concern: theatrical rigging, the old rope-and-batten kind, was derived from ships’ rigging and at sea, signals for raising and lowering lines were given by whistling.  The wrong whistle at the wrong time could actually result in a stagehand dropping a sandbag or a flat on some poor actor’s head!  (The superstition specifically says that if someone whistles in a dressing room, the actor nearest the door will lose his job.)  So, no whistling back stage, all right?

Other theater superstitions include the belief that the color green is bad luck, related apparently to the way gaslights enhanced green costume fabric and reflected it onto the actor’s face, causing her to look seriously ill.  Real flowers, jewels, money, mirrors, and coffins on the stage are seen as bringers of bad luck.  More bad-luck omens: peacock feathers, opening on a Friday, applying your makeup while someone’s looking over your shoulder, and unpacking your makeup before the reviews are out.  Good luck can be generated if an actor’s shoes squeak on his entrance or if a cat takes up residence back stage.  Spilling face powder is bad luck, but if a chorus member dances in the spilled powder, it guarantees her career. 

That chorus dancer, however, has her own, now long-running good-luck charm: The Gypsy Robe.  Since 1950, an elaborate tradition has grown up around what was once just a simple piece of practical back-stage apparel, and though it is a Broadway tradition born and nurtured, versions of it have been adopted by regional theaters and even high schools and colleges.  It all started by accident, really, and I’m going to tell you the whole story.

First, let me explain what a “gypsy” in the theater is.  It has little to do with the Roma or the musical called Gypsy (which is about the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, for those who don’t know already).  A Broadway gypsy is a chorus dancer, boy or girl (chorus members are always “boys” and “girls,” no matter how old they get), a member of the dance ensemble, someone who dances in the line.  It is the part of the profession applauded in the 1975 musical  A Chorus Line (an old review of which I posted on ROT on 31 August).  In Show Business, one of New York’s theater trade papers, Leanne Boepple helped define the Broadway gypsy:

Who are the gypsies?  The martyrs.  The troopers.  The workhorses who don’t always get the recognition, or the dressing rooms with the stars on them.  The diverse range of performers who are celebrated in “A Chorus Line,” whose anthem (ask any gypsy) can be “What I Did For Love.”

Until A Chorus Line came along, Ruby Keeler played the most famous gypsy in 42nd Street (Wanda Richert played the part in the 1980 stage adaptation), but she went out a youngster and came back a star.  Of course, that’s Hollywood (and later Broadway) fiction.  If a dancer becomes a featured performer, she’s no longer a gypsy.  (Think of Cassie in Chorus Line, who moved up the ladder only to find herself needing to get back in the line.)  They are almost always anonymous performers, seemingly interchangeable.  Theatergoers seldom know their names or anything else about them.  They are nomads, going from gig to gig, show to show, like their namesakes (which is their only connection to the Roma). 

It’s a pretty hard life, really.  Most gypsies spend their whole performing careers in the ensemble, and it’s usually a fairly short career—like an athlete’s.  Age and injuries, both of which are inevitable, make certain that’s how it’ll be.  Especially talented chorus dancers go on to longer careers as choreographers—and a few extraordinary ones become featured dancers and even stars and manage to go on, like Gwen Verdon or Chita Rivera did, until they’re grandparents.  Most chorus dancers don’t get that lucky, so they remain gypsies, hoofing from show to show, theater to theater, line to line.  Phyllis French, a Broadway chorine from the ’50s, explains, “Gypsies are the people who take every opportunity to perform, not just because they have to pay the bills, but for the love of it.”  (Now, if that ain’t a song cue . . . .)

It’s also a pretty small world, though you might think, with all the musicals and all the productions and all the theaters around the country, on cruise ships, in Las Vegas, and even abroad nowadays, that it’d be a big field.  The fact is that most dancers stick with their own beat—Broadway and tours, Vegas and cruise ships, and so on.  So they meet the same dancers pretty frequently and get to be at least familiar with one another professionally, if not fast friends.  That happens, too, of course: people with similar lives who understand one another tend to gravitate together—to commiserate, if nothing else.  “You know people from auditions and shows,” affirms chorus dancer Albertina Horstmann, who performed in the 1940s and ’50s.  “And you are all in the same boat. You're going for a common goal . . . when you go out for nine months doing a show, the cast becomes your family.”  And that’s how this story begins.

In 1950, according to the legend, chorine Florence Baum of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which had opened on 8 December 1949 at the Ziegfeld Theatre, went into the men’s dressing room in a pale pink dressing gown with white feathers (probably ostrich, not peacock—but who knows). The men all tried it on—you can picture the scene, something from La Cage aux Folles or Victor/Victoria, maybe—and fellow dancer Bill Bradley persuaded Baum to let him have it.  (One version of the story has it that Bradley wore the robe on opening night of Gentlemen and paraded around back stage conferring good luck on the production, which, as we know, turned out to be a huge hit.)  As a good-luck omen, he sent it to Arthur Partington, his friend opening in Call Me Madam at the Imperial (12 October 1950).  Bradley told his friend that “the legendary gypsy robe” had been worn for good luck by all the Ziegfeld Follies girls back in the 1920s.  Call Me Madam received unanimous rave reviews, as history records, so Partington pinned a feathered rose from Ethel Merman's costume to the robe and passed it on to a friend in the chorus of Guys and Dolls, opening at the 46th Street Theatre (24 November 1950). Baum obviously never got her dressing gown back, but the tradition of what became the Gypsy Robe was born and the robe, with a memento from each production attached, continued to be passed from one show to another.

The Gypsy Robe is presented on opening night to the dancer who has the most Broadway chorus credits.  The Actors’ Equity Association keeper-of-the-robe, a former gypsy, insisted, “It has to go to a chorus person.  No principals.  We always say, ‘Sorry folks.  You’ve got the Tonys, Circle Award, and all these different things, but you don’t have this one.  This is just chorus.’”  (AEA, the union which represents chorus dancers, has a separate contract for members of the chorus, known as the “pink” contract for the paper on which it’s printed, so the distinction is easy to make.)  Purely ensemble shows aren’t eligible and the length of the run is immaterial: the sole criterion is how many Broadway shows the dancer has worked in.  The honor rewards tenacity and persistence, not quality; it’s about life, not art.  (Longevity, by the way, isn’t necessarily a criterion: one gypsy can accumulate lots of credits in a brief time, say in a series of short-lived gigs—one dancer did four shows in his first year in the business—while another may take years to rack up productions because she stays with long-running shows to maintain the security of a paycheck.)  There’s also no limit to the number of times a dancer can be awarded the robe: if a gypsy in one show has the most credits and then moves on to another chorus line where he has the most shows on his résumé again, he gets the robe.  If there’s a tie, with more than one gypsy having the same number of shows to their credit, the previous winner delivering the robe decides who gets the robe for the new show.  (What?  You thought they staged a dance-off?)

Every time the robe is passed along to a new recipient, a souvenir of the receiving musical is added.  Soon the robes become a garish mix of mismatched colors and strange shapes.  As the tradition grew, the embellishments became more and more elaborate, including embroidery and actual artifacts from the shows.  When a dressing gown is filled, it’s retired, and a new robe begins the circuit.  Some of the applications can be quite bulky: a hand puppet can replace a sleeve and a hood might be sewn on.  Some Gypsy Robes have been accessorized with an elaborate hat as part of the decoration.  The contribution of Tarzan (10 May 2006) included bits of the set, costumes, and stage curtain.  (Today Actors’ Equity, which has taken charge of the Gypsy Robe procedure and keeps its history, makes the basic garment especially for the purpose.  It’s a plain, off-white muslin kimono-style dressing gown—no feathers.  A new robe is built at the start of every season.)  It takes about 20 shows for a robe to get filled up.  By the time one robe from the 1960s was retired, it held 52 items and by the 1990s, there were eight existing robes in retirement because they’d all gotten so full of remembrances.  Equity now records 15 retired robes in existence, the oldest of which dates back to 1976.

Two retired robes are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, three are at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and three are on display in the Museum of the City of New York.  One of the Smithsonian robes, from the 1983-1985 seasons, includes mementos from La Cage aux Folles, Zorba, Marilyn, Baby, The Tap Dance Kid, The Human Comedy, Oliver, Sunday in the Park with George, The Wiz, The Three Musketeers, Harrigan and Hart, Leader of the Pack, Take Me Along, Grind, Big River, and Singin’ in the Rain.  The other is from the 1995-1997 seasons and contains memorabilia from Victor/Victoria, State Fair, The King and I, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Big, Rent, Chicago, Once Upon a Mattress, Play On!, Annie, Dream, Titanic, and Steel Pier.   All remaining retired Gypsy Robes are kept by Actors’ Equity where the procedure is supervised under the auspices of the Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs (ACCA).  (Presently retired robes are mostly at the New York City national Equity headquarters, but the union plans to distribute them to regional offices in the coming years so that local AEA members and visitors can see them.  The Miami and Chicago offices have one already and plans to display one in L.A. are in the works.)  The circulating robe is also stashed at Equity between opening nights for safekeeping until the next presentation.

The presentation of the Gypsy Robe—Equity trademarked the name in 2009—was originally pretty route-step and casual.  After Bill Bradley gave the first  Gypsy Robe to his friend Arthur Partington as essentially a gag, the robe was passed along haphazardly, often to a friend of the last recipient or to the most popular dancer.  Sometime in the 1960s, however, a more formalized procedure was established and through the ’70s and ’80s, a ritual developed.  There’s now a specific ceremony with official rules overseen by Equity and ACCA governing the way the robe’s presented, worn, and exhibited on stage.  The rules for the eligibility and selection of the winner of the Gypsy Robe are:
  • The Gypsy Robe goes only to Broadway musicals with a chorus.
  • The robe goes to a chorus member only, the dancer with the most number of Broadway chorus credits.
  • It must be delivered by Half-Hour on Opening Night to the member selected.
  • The new recipient must put on the Gypsy Robe and circle the stage three times while cast members reach out and touch the robe for good luck; the new recipient visits each dressing room while wearing the Gypsy Robe.
  • The new recipient supervises the addition to the robe of an application from the new show.  There are important rules for adding mementos: For wearability, durability, and longevity, add-ons must be lightweight, sturdy, and reasonably sized so each Gypsy Robe can represent a full season.
  • The opening-night date and the recipient’s name are written on or near the memento and only cast members sign that section of robe.
  • The recipient will attend the next Broadway musical opening and will present the Gypsy Robe to the next honored “Gypsy” in that show.

On the opening night of a new musical, somewhere between an hour and an hour-and-a-half before curtain time, while the doors from the street are still locked, before any theatergoer is even within earshot, and only the house staff is anywhere around, the stage manager announces, “On stage for the Gypsy Robe!”  The chorus members of the new show, whispering in anticipation and excitement, leave their dressing rooms, some already partly costumed and made-up, and flow in from the wings to gather center stage in a circle.  Principal performers, directors, and stage hands assemble nearby, but only chorus dancers may join the circle.  This starts the Gypsy Robe ritual.  The previous winner of the Gypsy Robe, accompanied by representatives of Equity and sometimes former Gypsy Robe recipients, brings in the garment.  An Equity rep and the last winner stand in the middle of the circle and the previous recipient announces the next honoree, now known as “the Gypsy” for the evening.  After the union rep delivers a short speech about the history of the robe and its significance to all gypsies, the new Gypsy puts on the robe amidst the applause, cheers, and, often, tears of castmates, parades around the circle three times counterclockwise as the cast touches the garment for good luck.  Then, wearing the robe, the Gypsy makes the rounds to every dressing room, chorus dancers’ and principals’ alike, to bless the show with good fortune.  By tradition, the wearer of the Gypsy Robe even goes into empty dressing rooms—because the blessing’s not just for the performers.  It’s for the show and for the theater, too.  Especially for the dancers, the ceremony is quite moving: “It really sums up your whole career to date,” explains a chorine who’s received the robe once in the ’90s and again in the ’aughts, “and the fact that you're actually being acknowledged for all that you've done is rare, and it really it means a lot.”   

Not all the ceremonies go according to the prescribed ritual.  On 23 April this year, on the stage of the Lunt Fontanne Theatre, when the Gypsy Robe honoree’s name was called out, James Brown III of Ghost The Musical couldn’t . . . ummm, fulfill his duties.  He couldn’t make the triple circuit of the assembled gypsies as required by the ritual because, you see, the dancer was on crutches with a cast on his foot.  Brown had suffered an accident and was temporarily immobilized, so that evening’s Gypsy stood in the middle of the magic circle wearing the robe while the ensemble rotated around him so that everyone could carry on the tradition of touching the Gypsy Robe.  As for the second part of the Gypsy’s duties, Brown managed to visit every dressing room to bless the show as required, climbing the theater’s stairs and meeting the challenge. 

In the days following the ritual, the Gypsy gets together with the musical’s costume crew to create a patch on the robe for a talisman to represent the show.  Every cast member in the show will sign it.  The augmented robe is then removed to a safe storage place at Equity’s Times Square offices to await the next celebration of the ritual, opening night at the next eligible musical production on Broadway. 

At Half-Hour, when all the actors are required to be present in the theater to prepare for the performance and when the house is traditionally opened to patrons, the Gypsy, briefly the center of attention, accorded special recognition by her or his peers and colleagues, morphs back into a chorus dancer.  The hoofer takes her or his place in the ensemble, anonymous once again.  As is the lot of the gypsy, this performer will get no special curtain call or hear her or his name over the PA system.  The audience will leave the show, a hit or not, never knowing that there was a Queen or King of the Gypsies on the stage that night.  But that’s what it means to be a Broadway gypsy.  Won't forget, can't regret / What I did for love.

There have been some milestones along the Gypsy Robe trail.  I tried to find out who the Gypsy Robe honoree with the most credits of all was—I’ve read about some in the upper teens—but I couldn’t find who holds the record.  I also couldn’t determine who the oldest Gypsy Robe winner was, but the youngest recipient is Brynn Williams, a young chorus member in the Broadway musical In My Life (20 October 2005), who was 12 when she received the robe on stage at the Music Box Theatre.  Her other Broadway credit was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and she’s gone on to become a featured player in Broadway productions of 13 and Bye Bye Birdie.  (I don’t know if he’s the oldest recipient ever, but dancer Harvey Evans, formerly billed as Harvey Hohnecker, claims to be “the world's oldest working Broadway gypsy”—he’s 71 now—and has won the robe twice: for Sunset Boulevard on 17 November 1994 and Oklahoma! on 21 March 2002.)  As I’m writing this, the latest honoree is Lisa Gajda, the second of the 2012-13 season, who received the Gypsy Robe from the previous recipient, Rod Harrelson of Bring It On (1 August) on 10 September, the opening night of Chaplin at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.  Previously, Gajda received the robe for Taboo, Times They Are A Changing, Cry Baby, Finian’s Rainbow, and Elf As a six-time recipient of the Gypsy Robe, according to Equity’s records, Gajda is the chorus member who’s been so honored the most, but she actually has a seventh honor.  On one occasion, the dancer was selected to receive the robe but requested that the honor go to the next eligible gypsy.

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