This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Woodwinds at the Lake

16 September 2017

What can be more relaxing
on an afternoon by the lake
than listening to the mellifluous sound
of a bassoon?

Why listening to two bassoons!

This anonymous double reed duo
and their charming assistant
sit on a weedy lawn
by some unknown body of water.

The date is unknown
but to judge by the two gentlemen's
wool trousers, waistcoats,
and pocket watch
they are lost in time somewhere
between 1910 and 1930.

They have the look of professional bassoonists
who might be practicing any number
of orchestral duets for bassoons.
But I'm sure they would recognize
the familiar music performed in this video.



Georgie Powell & Thomas Dulfer perform Largo al factorum from The Barber of Seville
composed by Gioachino Rossini and arranged for two bassoons by Bram van Sambeek.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where if the fish aren't biting,
there's always a good story to tell.

Xylophon Kinder part 1

09 September 2017

Emil Jahn
der kleinste Xylophon-Virtuose der Gegenwart
5 jahre alt

the smallest xylophone virtuoso of the present
5 Years old

Dressed in a military bandsman's uniform,
little Emil stands proudly behind an instrument
that he called a Xylophon.
But it is 90 degrees different
from the modern percussion instruments
we know as xylophones and marimbas.
Those instruments arrange
the pitched wooden or metal bars
with the longer bass tones on the left
and the higher tones ranked progressively to the right
just like the keys of a piano.
Emil's xylophon has four columns of wooden bars
arrayed into trapezoidal shape
with the lower tone bars closest to him
and the higher ones farther away.
It's a bewildering system that does not follow
the familiar keyboard pattern of white keys for naturals
and black keys for sharps and flats.
It looks very difficult to play.
But once upon a time
it was easy enough
for little kids to master.

The postcard was sent to Fräulein Elsa Lantsch
and postmarked from Leipzig on 13 June 1914


Emil Jahn posed for another souvenir photo
dressed in a sailor suit, a popular boy's fashion of the time,
but with the edges of his collar and cuffs embroidered in scallops
and his jacket and short pants made in a velvet fabric.
He is holding a pair of curious shaped sticks
that are different from the ball-end mallets
used by modern xylophone players.
These are more like the spoon shaped hammers
used to play a Cimbalom or Hammered Dulcimer.
Both of these wire strung instruments
are similarly arranged into a trapezoid
with the strings stretched left to right
and having the low notes closest to the player.
Like xylophones and pianos
they belong to the percussion family
as the musical tone is produced
by being struck with a stick or hammer.

The postmark is not legible,
perhaps 1913 or 1914,
but it was sent to Fräulein Babbette Poptr(?)
Münchberg in Bavaria, Germany.


Die kleinste Xylophonvirtuosin
Gretel Link

This young girl appears to be about age 12.
Dressed head to toe in white,
Gretel stands before a trapezoidal xylophon
set upon a table that looks purpose made
to fold and carry her instrument.

This type of xylophone links the wooden bars together
with string cleverly knotted to space the bars.
They rest on tracks that were sometimes made of straw,
which gave the instrument its folk name,
Strohfiedel or Straw Fiddle.

It is also called
the Hölzernes Gelächter or Wooden Hilarity (?),
and was an instrument popular with musicians
of the alpine Tyrol region of western Austria.

Gertel Link's postcard was sent
from Nuernberg, Germany
on the 14th of January, 1913.


Elsa von Borstein
7 Jahre alt!

Xylophone Virtuoso
7 years old!

Little Elsa wears a feminine variation
of the sailor suit
as she concentrates on keeping
her xylophon sticks
from getting tangled in her long hair.
Her instrument is placed
on a heavy ornate table
but she still needs to stand on a box,
cleverly disguised with a carpet,
in order to reach the bars.


Her postcard was never mailed
but likely dates from around 1910.

The trapezoidal xylophon,
or Hölzernes Gelächter, or Strohfiedel,
was once a very common percussion instrument
in musical groups from Central Europe.
It was this type xylophon
that European composers
of the 19th and early 20th century
knew as a folk instrument.
I have many postcards of German/Austrian folk bands
that show one draped over a chair or placed on a small table.
Yet today this kind of pitched mallet percussion
with its baffling system of musical tones
is rare to find and largely forgotten
as it has been replaced by the improved xylophone
in the modern percussion world.

But for some reason it was once a very popular instrument
for talented small children
to play as soloists
in family musical ensembles.

Since I've found enough of their postcards
to display this interesting musical history,
this post is just the first
of a series I call
 Xylophon Kinder.

Stay tuned for more.

Now it's time to hear
what a
Hölzernes Gelächter sounds like.
Here is a YouTube video
of a performance by the Familienmusik Servi
that features some fast handwork on the Xylophon.

* * *

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the kids are always up to something.

Musik im Norden

01 September 2017

It's a bit like
a floral decoration.
elaborate brassy candelabra of
gleaming horns and shiny tenor tubas
surround a centerpiece of glockenspiel,
interspersed with decorative sprigs of clarinets.
Flanking either side are two stout kettle drums
wearing frilled skirts embroidered
with a crossed anchor design.
Casually leaning against them
are two pairs of long bugles
embellished with colorful flags.

I have lots of band postcards
with similar arrangements
of musical instruments.
It's very German.


But none of them are displayed
beneath the long cannons
of a battleship.

Seventeen sailors dressed
in dark tunics and white caps
line up abaft their instruments.
Their bandleader wears an officer's hat
and sits in the center
just behind the glockenspiel's eagle crest.

They pose for the camera
on a naval ship's brightly scrubbed wooden deck.
Six imposing guns are visible
with barrels muted by rain caps.

In the distant background

a steep forested slope
can be seen.

The hatbands of seamen in the German navy
usefully identify the name of their ship.
The font is a Gothic script and reads:

Kreuzer Karlsruhe

The bugle banners have
typical German heraldry designs.
One shows a Prussian black cross
on a field of three colored bars,
the other has the motto FIDELITAS
diagonally across a shield symbol.

The Karlsruhe bandsmen are not dressed in uniforms
of Kaiser Wilhelm's Imperial Germany Navy.
Yet they do not wear swastikas of Hitler's Third Reich either.
If they are not sailors
of the Kaiserliche Marine (1871–1919)
or the Kriegsmarine (1935–45),
then they must be sailors of the Reichsmarine (1919–35)
Germany's navy during the interwar years
of the Weimar Republic.

They are most definitely German.
So why was their postcard printed in the USA?

Made in Juneau, Alaska
by Winter & Pond Co.

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
10 April 1932

In April 1932, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser announced that the German cruiser Karlsruhe would soon arrive at Hawaii's Pearl Harbor. There were 30 officers, 59 cadets, and 470 enlisted men aboard the ship. It was built in Kiel by the Deutsche Werft  (sic - Werke) and completed in 1928 with a length of 570 feet, a beam of 49 feet 10½ inches, a maximum draught (sic - draft) of 17 feet 9 inches, and a displacement of 6,500 tons. (Metric conversions are always complicated in America) It carried armament of nine 6-inch guns, four antiaircraft guns, 18 machine guns, and 12 torpedo tubes.

The newspaper got most of it right. The Kreuzer Karlsruhe was a light cruiser, a small battleship designed more for speed rather than armor and firepower. It was the second ship built between 1926 and 1930 in the Königsberg class, all named after German cities: Königsberg, Karlsruhe, and Köln. Its namesake Karlsruhe is the second-largest city in the southwest state of Baden-Württemberg, and is situated on the Rhine River.

The first service for the cruiser Karlsruhe was as a training ship. Beginning in 1930 it made five world tours to Africa, South America, Asia, and North America. On this its second major voyage, Kapitän zur See Erwin Wassner, took over command in September 1931. The cruise went first to Cuba, followed by visits to Texas, Mexico, Venezuela, and then through the Panama Canal to Hawaii.

* *

In the 1930s major world powers continued to use naval fleets as an extension of diplomacy. But a battleship represented more than just military power. A large navy ship demonstrated national prestige and its crew acted as goodwill ambassadors for their country. And in 1932 Germany still had a lot of goodwill to make up for. A few days after docking at Pearl Harbor, Captain Wassner volunteered his ship's band to play a concert at a baseball game in benefit for a Honolulu beautification fund.

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
30 April 1932

The visit of the cruiser Karlsruhe got a lot of notice in the Honolulu newspapers. "Doc" Adams, an editorial writer for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser was impressed by the number of German sailors who spoke English, a number he considered ten times greater than those American sailors who could speak German. He attributed this to the superiority of European educational systems and the useless effort to teach Latin in American schools.

The writer finished his criticism by recounting his visit to a school in Auckland, New Zealand where he was stumped by a student's question. "If your president dies and the vice president dies who becomes president?" He was embarrassed that he didn't know. Then the class stood up and sang the "Star Spangled Banner" in his honor. With ALL the verses!

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
1 May 1932

The Karlsruhe did have a few foreign civilian workers on the ship, five Chinese laundrymen who were reported by the newspaper's Chinese-Hawaiian photographer to talk terrible German.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
7 May 1932

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
10 May 1932

On May 9, 1932 the cruiser Karlsruhe departed for its next port of call in Alaska. As it cast off from the pier at sunset, its decks were lined with its officers and crewmen wearing traditional Hawaiian leis over their white uniforms. Even the bow of the ship was decorated with flowers. As the Karlsruhe pulled away the band played Hawaiian music to the crowd of people on the pier who had come to say farewell.

* *

Newspapers in Alaska probably reported the arrival of the cruiser Karlsruhe with the same enthusiasm as the Hawaiian papers, but unfortunately the internet archives have yet to digitize many Alaskan newspapers. But I did find one brief mention of the ship''s visit in a Bellingham, Washington paper that noted the appearance of Captain Wassner and his men at an American Legion Memorial Day parade in Juneau, AK. The report left out a crucial prefix by describing Wassner as a captain of marine during the World War. In fact he commanded 6 submarines or German U-boats in the war, sinking or disabling 90 allied ships.

Bellingham WA Herald
30 May 1932
Alaska only became an official territory of the United States in 1912 and would not gain statehood until 1959. According to the 1930 census its total population was just 59,278. Alaska's first capital was Sitka, a town located on the Pacific side of Baranof Island in the Alaska Panhandle. The capital was moved to Juneau in 1912, but the Alaska Territorial Federal Building was not completed until 1929. Juneau's citizens numbered only 4,043 in 1930, so the entire city probably turned out to see the Kreuzer Karlsruhe when it dropped anchor in Juneau's harbor. Alaska's Digital Archives provide a photo of the ship.

Kreuzer Karlsruhe Juneau, AK May 25, 1932
Source: Alaska's Digital Archives

The same photo was used by several newspapers across the country to promote the harmonious relations between Germany and the United States, but they cropped the photo leaving out dramatic Mount Juneau rising 3,576-foot (1,090 m) from the sea. The photo of the band was taken from the aft deck where there are two gun turrets. 

Reno NV Gazette-Journal
7 June 1932

After a few days in Juneau, the Karlsruhe moved south with stops in Seattle and Portland. The Portland newspaper reported that the Karlsruhe band played for the Pacific Northwest German Saengerfest. The band numbered 28 musician and became an orchestra for dances at the fest. The concert program began with a performance of Wagner's Renzi Overture. Throughout its tour of American ports from Galveston, TX to Honolulu, Juneau, Seattle, and Portland the cruiser Karlsruhe hosted many German-American organizations. Perhaps the biggest enticement for the public was the German beer available on board the ship which was otherwise illegal according to America's new Prohibition laws.

Portland OR Oregonian
19 June 1932

The Karlsruhe had to cut short its tour of the Pacific Northwest when it was ordered to Chile to monitor an unstable political scene. It then took the long way around Cape Horn and South America and arrived in Philadelphia in early November 1932. Captain Wassner along with a contingent of officers and men of the Karlsruhe traveled down to Washington, DC to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Later he and his crew also attended a football game at the Annapolis Naval Academy.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a photo of Captain Wassner's visit. One either side are two reports ironically foreshadowing the terrible events to come in the next decade. On the left is a report from Russia on the 15th anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Standing atop Lenin's Mausoleum, Joseph Stalin watched a parade in Moscow's Red Square of 1,000,000 people. On the right is a report on the Socialist Party's nominee for President of the United States, Norman Thomas. He was quoted at a rally at Brooklyn's Academy of Music, "Do not throw away your vote by voting your fears rather than your faith, by trying to choose the lesser of two evils when both are equally bad."

The next day, American voters went to the polls to cast their ballots in the presidential election of 1932. With over 57% of the popular vote Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the election, beating incumbent President Herbert Hoover by a landslide. The Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas came in third with 2.2%.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
7 November 1932

The cruiser Karlsruhe returned to its home port Kiel on December 8, 1932. A month later on 30 January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Just a few weeks after that came the tragic fire in Berlin that led to the passing of the infamous Reichstag Fire Decree, which rescinded most German civil liberties, including rights of assembly and freedom of the press. The decree also allowed the police to detain people indefinitely without charges or a court order. On the death of Hindenburg in August 1934, Hitler assumed complete power as Führer und Reichskanzler.

Between  October 1934 and June 1936 the Karlsruhe made three more world tours but with new German flags hanging from the band's trumpets. It never returned to Juneau but it did stop once more at Honolulu. In February 1934 the local newspaper ran a photo of the new commander, Captain Freiherr Harsdorf von Endendorf bedecked with several rings of Hawaiian leis. Next to him is a picture of the Karlsruhe band playing "Aloha Oe" in reply to a musical salute from the Royal Hawaiian Band on the pier.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
24 February 1934

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
28 February 1934

The band of the Kreuzer Karlsruhe played a concert on February 29, 1934 that was broadcast over radio station KGMB.  The bandleader Max Joas was the same director who posed with the band in 1932. The band concert concluded with Unter dem Sternenbanner, Marsch also known as The Stars and Stripes Forever march by John Philip Sousa. As history unfolded over the next few years, it would be a long time before a German Navy Band played this march in Pearl Harbor.

* * *

In 1936 the cruiser Karlsruhe was seriously damaged by a tropical storm in the Pacific and forced to put into San Diego for repairs at the US Navy Shipyard. Two years later it underwent a major modification in Kiel shipyards that included replacing the 8.8 cm guns with heavier 10.5 cm guns.

At the start of WW2  it joined the German naval forces invading Denmark and Norway. After engaging in a successful combat operation to capture Kristiansand, the Karlsruhe set off from the fjord with three torpedo boat escorts. It was spotted by the British submarine HMS Truant which fired a spread of torpedoes. Despite taking evasive action the Karlsruhe was struck in the bow and amidships. With flooding disabling both engines and generators, the commander was compelled to order the crew to abandon ship. They were taken off by one of the torpedo boats which then fired torpedoes into the Karlsruhe to sink her.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more useful stories
with practical illustrations.


Just over a week ago, 
I too was standing on a ship
that overlooked the magnificent mountains of Alaska.
As this was a peaceful expedition
there were no great guns over my head.

The fjords and islands
of Alaska's southeast panhandle
contain some of the most stunning landscapes
that I've ever seen.
Words and music,
or even photographs and video,
can not fully describe
the awesome grandeur
of this wild place.
Especially when it is cold and very wet.

The South Sawyer Glacier
of the Tracy Arm Fjord
as photographed on August 23, 2017.
In the center
is a boat about 60 feet in length.
The water here is over 600 feet deep.
The mountains are over 5,500 feet tall.

Lessons in Swedish

26 August 2017

Left and stretch
and two...and three...and four!

Right and stretch
and two...and three...and four!

Armée Belge -  Ecole régimentaire
Leçon de gymnastique suédoise
Belgian Army - Regimental School
Swedish gymnastic lesson

Assume the position!
Take up legs!
Straighten arms!
Forward – Walk!

Armée Belge - Ecole régimentaire
Leçon de gymnastique suédoise

Belgian Army - Regimental School
Swedish gymnastic lesson

These two postcards are from a longer series of postcards
published in the decade prior to the First World War
that promoted the readiness of the Belgian Army.
The postcards are unmarked
but likely date from 1908-1912.

In the 1900s Swedes had a popular reputation
for gymnastics and fitness training,
which was then being adapted
for modern military training in several countries.

Because mechanized vehicles in 1910
were still very heavy with unreliable engines,
the soldier-powered wheelbarrow
remained an important piece of military equipment
for constructing the trenches along the Belgian borders.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where exercise is always important to good health.

Lost in Translation

05 August 2017

The bearskin cap still remains
the unofficial trademark
of the British army.
But the bearskin hat style
was originally French,
belonging to Napoleon's Imperial Guard. 
After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815
this French fur hat fashion was awarded to Britain's
1st Regiment of Foot Guards,
or The Grenadier Guards
to wear as part of a new uniform
that celebrated their victory over Napoleon.

Later the distinctive tall bearskin caps
of the Grenadier Guards were
adopted by other British units,
the Coldstream Guards, the Scots Guards,
the Irish guards, and the Welsh Guards.
The bearskin used to make the caps
is imported from Canada,
and traditionally comes
from the fur of female brown bears
that is then dyed black.
Guardsmen of the 21st century
now mostly wear
bearskin caps made of synthetic fur.

As far as I can determine
the bearskin was never intended
to be worn by women.

Nor were sporran,
the kilt accessory
of a Scottish man's uniform,
ever considered a handbag
suitable for a woman.

Yet here we have seven young ladies,
dressed in full Scottish formal tartans,
plaid kilts, marching spats,
and bearskin caps,
who called themselves:

Miss Freda Russell's English Orchestra

The photographer's mark in the lower right corner
of this photo postcard reads
Dorpat   Alt St 6

Dorpat is not in Scotland or England
but is the old name for Tartu
the second largest city in Estonia

The postcard was mailed from Russia
on 05-01-1912.
The message may be in German
but the handwriting
makes it difficult to be certain.

This ladies musical troupe, which included one man wearing standard black tie dinner jacket, called itself an English Orchestra, though the musicians have no instruments. If they were proper English ladies, why are they dressed in Scottish garb? How did their postcard get photographed in Estonia, which was  then part of the Russian Empire? Who is Miss Freda Russell? 

It's all a curious puzzle but at least I can answer the last question.

The Stage
06 June 1912

Miss Freda Russell was from Cheltenham. She played the violin and was a graduate of London's Royal Academy of Music, where she won a silver medal. She was a professional musician who performed small recital concerts around England and Scotland. In June 1912 she ran an advertisement in London's theatrical trade magazine, The Stage.

Wanted, Young Lady Violinist (Leader) and Flautist or Clarionet for first-class Ladies Orchestra (abroad). Must be good and experienced. Yearly contract. Good salaries. Cornet, Viola, Druns, etc., write in, with terms, photos, etc., to
Miss FREDA RUSSELL, 3, Clarence Parade, Cheltenham

The Stage
29 August 1912
By August she was still in search of a 'Cellist, Flautist, and Pianist  (Ladies) for abroad. But her contact address was no Restaurant Richelien, Odessa, Russia.

Gloucestershire Echo
25 October 1912

In October she hired Miss Lilian Burrows (pianist and vocalist), youngest daughter of Mr. Burrows, surgeon dentist, of Cheltenham. Miss Burrows would shortly leave for South Russia to join Miss Freda Russell's orchestra. A position of cellist was still open, and applicants were invited to travel with her.

As usual with these postcard mysteries,
we must use our imagination
to create a story
of how and why
seven young English ladies
dressed as Scots Guards
traveled to Imperial Russia in 1912
to perform concerts in French restaurants.

Did they play bagpipes too?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where all animals are fair game.

Mademoiselle Fifi

28 July 2017

All she wore were
flowers, balloons, and a smile.
That's all you need to know.
The rest is best left
to the imagination.

 Her smile greets us
on a large 8"x10" glossy.
The standard publicity passport
of the theater world.
Being a clever girl,
she signed it too.

“Just for remembrance”
Jan 4th  1923
Scranton, Pa

Sincerely Yours
To Violet

The back of the photo also
has an address:


Perm address
817 N 25th St.
Phila. Pa.

Poplar 677W -

Summer address
Clementon N.J.
La Fifi Villa

And one more name:

Ned Ruddy
716 Monroe Ave
Scranton Pa

I bought Fifi's photo with a small lot of other vaudeville promotional photos that came from an estate sale in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It's a fun flirtations image, but it's not really musical so it's outside my usual acquisitions. I just liked her smile.

But there are a lot of good clues with this photo. A date, a place, and names.

Let's start with the date – January 1923,
the place – Scranton,
and a name – Fifi.

Scranton PA Republican
06 January 1923

On January 6, 1923, Scranton offered all kinds of amusements for the first Saturday of the year. The Strand theatre showed a children's matinee of a Harold Lloyd comedy "Grandma's Boy", plus Man vs Beast, Views of the Jungle. The State had Mabel Normand in "Molly O", a  Mack Sennett production. The Regent feature was Tom Mix in "Arabia" with Will Rodgers in "The Ropin' Fool". Josef Rosenblatt, the greatest Cantor Tenor would be singing the following Wednesday at the Y.M.H.A auditorium. The Capitol, Scranton's Vaudeville Palace, listed a variety of acts beginning with "Eight Perfect Fools", a Whirlwind of Merriment, and the famous Curzon Sisters, sensational and novelty aerialists. Frank Van Hoven, the Mad Magician, headlined Poli's theatre, along with Charles Ray in "Gas, Oil, and Water", a Thrill and a Laugh a Minute. Over at the Liederkranz Casino there was music and dancing every Saturday. And at the Majestic, Scranton's Fun Center, "Real Burlesque" with Harry Fields and his Hello Jako Girls - and held over another week "Fifi".  

Scranton PA Republican
03 January 1923

A couple days before, Scranton's newspaper ran a review of the Majestic theater's show. It attracted big crowds over the New Year weekend. The versatile Harry Fields was backed by a capable ensemble, "The Hello Jake Girls".  The Majestic's manager, Louis Epstein, also retained for a second week, the striking sensational dancer, "Fifi". The latter a card worth while and has made so good an impression that patrons of the house will be delighted to know she continues at the house.

* * *

Mr. Epstein must have been impressed with her star quality because 12 months later, Fifi, "The One and Only" returned as the headline for the December 1923 New Years Eve show – "Flirts and Skirts". The girl in the advertisement's illustration wears a headband similar to the one in  Fifi photo.

Scranton PA Republican
31 December 1923

The name "Fifi" was surely a stage name, but show business names have always been like trademarks, valued as brands that sell tickets. So when did "Fifi" first appear in burlesque? In May 1917 she was the Dance Sensation of the Season at the Trocadero theater in Philadelphia. The advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer displayed her picture. Mlle. Fifi in the big hit, Danse de l'Opium.

Philadelphia Inquirer
27 May 1917

The abbreviation Mlle. for Mademoiselle added an exotic French quality to her name. Her style of dance may have been inspired by the popularity of the American dancer, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), who was then a major influence on changing classic ballet into modern interpretive dance. That was how Mlle. Fifi was billed in January 1927 when she headlined Omaha's Gayety Burlesk Show. "Nite Life in Paris", positively a good snappy show. See Mlle. Fifi, America's foremost interpretive dancer.

Omaha NE World Herald
20 January 1927

In this era, Burlesque Theatres, or Burlesk Theaters in Americanese, operated just like the vaudeville circuits had done for decades. Entertainers traveled from city to city, following the rail lines, playing theaters for a week or two and then moving on to the next booking. Agents handled acts from classy artistes to crass comedians putting on the latest musical comedy. And there always had to be chorus girls. American Burlesque was an art form that took away any pretense of artistic refinement and catered to the baser instincts of the American audience. Get them in the door, then show them what they want to see. As much as possible anyway.

In 1928 at the height of Prohibition, Fifi was the headline at the Embassy theatre in Altoona, PA.

Internationally Known Star
Midnight Show
tonight at 11:30

You may have seen dancers but you must
see Mll. Fifi if you want to see how they
dance in the orient.

Altoona PA Mirror
31 December 1928

So it would seem Mlle. Fifi's stage career lasted at least 11-15 years. I found notices of her appearance in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Omaha, Portland. But newspapers wouldn't reveal her real identity. The obvious clues could only lead to a dead end.

Until I looked for her address in Clementon, NJ.

Cincinnati Enquirer
09 July 1950

In the 1950s, newspapers around the country regularly printed syndicated Hollywood and Broadway news. A short filler ran during the summer of 1950.

Mlle. Fifi is perhaps the best known name in burlesk. She's retired to her La Fifi Villa at Clementon, N. J. She manages her daughter's bubble-dancing career now. Daughter is Dolores Dawson, who just wound up 60 consecutive weeks in Greenwich Village.

Evidently the daughter, like her mother, worked the burlesk stage too. That seems like a familiar story.

* * *

Camden NJ Courier-Post
13 November 1973

The house in Clementon even showed up in a 1973 real estate classified as a 2 bdrm bungalow in a unique wooded setting high on a hill. Former home of Show Business personality & known as "La Fifi Villa".  Priced at only $7000.

* * *

Now I had to find out who she really was.
With the names Dawson and Fifi it didn't take long.

Her stage persona was Mademoiselle Fifi, but her full name was Mary Elizabeth Dawson.  A native of Philadelphia, Mary Dawson was born in 1890, so she was age 33 in her balloon photo. Bearing in mind that having a Wikipedia page is not the same as being listed in the Dictionary of National Biography, truth is sometimes open to interpretation, but at least there were a few collaborating references. One was at the University of Maine Library, which incredibly has a Mary Dawson Collection.

Source: University of Maine Archives

There I found a postcard with an image of Mary Dawson nearly identical to the one shown in the 1917 Trocadero Theatre advert. The printed caption reads:

M'lle Fifi
"The Dancing Venus"

Extra Added Attraction with
Moore & Scanlon's
"Garden of Girls Company"

A handwritten note on the edge reads:

1910 –
Real Snakes

They do indeed look like snakes around her wrists, and on closer examination, in the image on the Trocadero's advert, she is wearing them!

And though I'm no herpetologist, I don't think they are garter snakes as described in her Wikipedia entry. 

* * *

Another postcard shows Mlle. Fifi hiding behind a Japanese parasol.
The printed caption reads:

Just arrived for the Summer

Fifi from Paris
The One Only & Original
Now Playing
Savoy Theatre
Atlantic City
, N.J.

Source: University of Maine Archives

Written on the card is:
Season 1928-29

Source: University of Maine Archives

The use of the phrase "The One Only & Original" which was similarly used on the 1923 advertisement may indicate that Mlle. Fifi had a dancing competitor who also went by Fifi or some name that was vaguely French. Here is another image from the University of Maine collection, an undated photo of Mary Dawson, aka Fifi, standing in front of a poster advertising Jack Lamont and his Pretty Babies with The Original Fifi from Paris, International Shimmy Dancer.

* * *

In 1960, LIFE magazine ran a "story" on the history of the Minsky Brothers Burlesque Shows. It included this image of Mademoiselle Fifi, a celebrated soubrette of their productions doing "The Dance of September Morn."  She is barefoot and adorned with flowers and lace but no snakes.

LIFE Magazine
02 May 1960

The reason that exotic oriental dancer, Mary Dawson, aka Mademoiselle Fifi, is remembered today is because of a 1968 musical comedy entitled The Night They Raided Minsky's, which starred Jason Robards and Britt Ekland. It was based on a book of the same name by Rowland Barber which was published in 1960. Supposedly the storyline is based in part on how Mary Dawson, aka Mademoiselle Fifi, got her big break in a Minsky Brothers burlesque show, by having, let's say, a wardrobe malfunction on stage during her performance. A crazy ruckus ensues that leads to her arrest for public indecency. But as every show business agent knows, even bad publicity is good publicity.

According to the Wikipedia entries on Mary Dawson, the movie, and the Minsky's Brothers, as well as several books on the history of the burlesque theater, this legendary showbiz event takes place on April 20, 1925. Yet it's strange that by 1925, Mlle. Fifi was a veteran trouper with over 15 years of dancing experience on the burlesque circuit. And I could not find her name connected to any of the Minsky Brothers shows for 1925 or any other year. It's a puzzle.

But let's Mary tell us the real story herself.

Elmira NY Star-Gazette
30 December 1975
In December 1975 newspapers around the country ran a photo and a heart-warming story of Mary Dawson, now age 85, recounting her dancing life in burlesque. "I never did anything risque, although I worked with a lot of strippers," she remembered. The episode of the raid on Minsky's Theatre was a myth, a showbiz legend begun by a writer who "just put all in that book to make it better." Now a grandmother, she tried to teach her 12-year-old granddaughter some of her old routines. "I can still move every part of my body," the former Mademoiselle Fifi boasts as she twirls a green snake around her neck and shoulders.

Mary Dawson, aka Mlle. Fifi, died in 1982 at age 92.

* * *

It's unusual for me to find so many useful references on a subject in my photograph collection. Usually the few records I can find make only a sketch of a person's life, so it's a thrill to be able to make a proper profile. Mary Dawson clearly became a successful entertainer in her chosen field, dancing in burlesque, the toughest stage of show biz. Yet there is a lot about her life that is left to our imagination. What was it like to be a woman traveling on the burlesque theater circuit? What kind of treatment did she receive from rough audiences, crooked agents, and licentious managers? Why did she let her daughter go into the same tawdry business? Perhaps it wasn't so vulgar as we might think.

On April 20, 1925, when supposedly Mlle. Fifi revealed a little too much at a Minsky Brothers Show, Mary Dawson claims she was somewhere else, working a convention she says. During the winter and spring of 1925, Mlle. Fifi, was associated with a national tour of show called The Greenwich Village Follies, headlined by Gallager and Shean, two vaudeville comedians. The show had over 20 skits with songs and dances, and of course, lots of chorus girls. It started on the east coast and headed west. By April 1925 the company was in California. The San Bernardino  newspaper promoted the upcoming show on April 26. The two comic stars were assisted by Mlle. Fifi, a celebrated French music hall artiste who was especially engaged for this number as well as prima donna in support of these artistes.

San Bernardino CA Daily Sun
26 April 1925

It's possible that this Mlle. Fifi was Mary Dawson's unoriginal competitor. Maybe in April 1925 Mary was playing a show for the Acme Novelty Company convention in New Jersey. But because she was a well-known name in burlesque, I think it's likely she was part of this show, at least in a few cities. In any case, she was not part of that indecent Minsky show.

Moreover for the entire year of 1925, much less April, the newspapers of America made no mention of any scandal at a Minsky Brothers Show. No nip slip, no torn skirt, no nothing. The authors of books on burlesque say Mary Dawson was there, even though they note a lack of evidence for which they have no explanation.

At the time, the Minsky Burlesque theater was called the National Winter Garden theater on Houston Street in New York City. It was advertised as "Burlesque As You Like It – Not a Family Show." The producers knew their audience and put together shows that imitated the Parisian Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge by having girls strut their stuff on a runway built out from the stage. The show had loud music, rude jokes, and risque skin. It was naughty, even bawdy humor. But the Minsky Brothers knew how to toe the line on New York's codes on indecency in a theater.

The notorious raid at Minsky's Theater
did not happen on April 20, 1925,
and Mlle. Fifi was not part of the show.
It was actually seven months earlier on Sept 15, 1924,
and the dancer's name was Mme. Cleo Vivian.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
16 September 1924
Court Draws No Line
on 'Girlie" Shows

Frees Burlesque Dancer
Act no more indecent than at
'High-priced Performances.'

NEW YORK, Sept 15 — "The standard of morals is no higher on the East Side than at Broadway and Forty-second street. Conceding this, I hold this dancer blameless and dismiss the complaint." With these words Magistrate Louis D. Brodsky freed Mme. Leo Vivian, 19-year-old Oriental dancer of the National Winter Garden Burlesque Company, of a charge of "doing an immoral dance while scantily clad."

Acquitted with Mme. Cleo were Nick Elliot, manager, and Walter Brown, comedian at the National Winter Garden, who were arraigned on charges of permitting the dance.

Weighing in his hand the seized costume, consisting of a pair of silk trunks, a narrow beaded girdle, belted at the waist, and two sheet-metal breastplates, the Magistrate said:

"For the official records I want to say that this dance is not indecent or immoral, as alleged.

"The audience at any of the high priced Broadway shows or cabarets would be disappointed if the star should appear in any more costume than that submitted here today."

* * *

Other reports offered more details. Oriental dancer Mme. Cleo spoke no English. Her "trunks" were tiny silk panties. She had made four encores in her costume and was about to return for another bow when a police detective,  two patrol officers, one of which was a policewoman, arrested her, along with the manager and the proprietor of the cabaret. It was reported that "Cleo wiggled so freely as to seriously endanger that little costume she had."

Don't you think
Mary Dawson laughed out loud
when she read this story?

* * *

To conclude
I can't resist offering this clip
of the 1968 musical comedy
The Night They Raided Minsky's.

It may be just a cinematic fiction,
but it gives us glimpse
of the glitzy and tacky
world of burlesque theatre
that Mademoiselle Fifi knew well.

* * *

* * *


One last thing. I don't know who Violet is, but Ned Ruddy whose Scranton address was written on the back of Fifi's photo, was Edward J. Ruddy, nickname Ned. He was then a 20 year-old young man, unmarried, and living at home while he worked in the advertising department of the Scranton newspaper. Want to bet he knew a thing or two about exotic dancers?


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it's all water under the bridge.


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