The rush of new theatre buildings which sprang up during the late 19th early 20th centuries led to significant improvements in the conditions under which theatrical performers prepared for their appearance on stage. In the old theatres, dressing rooms were cramped, confined spaces, often in the basement of the building or beneath the stage. Whilst separate facilities were normally provided for male and female performers, dressing rooms in these theatres were for the most part communal, with little or no special consideration being made for the main stars.
The new theatres however, boasted more and roomier dressing-rooms so that, whilst most performers still had to share, it became possible for the first time for those actresses high enough in their profession to enjoy the privilege of occupying a dressing room alone - apart, that is, from their maid or dresser. Consequently to command a private dressing room came to be a measure of success, and to have the largest and most comfortable dressing room was the ultimate status symbol.
Single occupancy also allowed the actress to personalise her dressing-room to give it a homelier touch by decorating it with hangings, ornaments and other personal bric-a-brac. Some of the 'old-timers' avoided this on the superstition that to do so would bring bad luck to the show, to make a dressing-room too comfortable would be to ensure that you would not enjoy it for very long, ie. the show will fail. The less superstitious on the other hand recognised that they might spend much time in these quarters and so were very particular that they be made comfortable and cosy, taking great pains to make it as homelike as possible.
Of course then, as now, there were a few prima donna's whose demands for their own comfort stretched the bounds of what is reasonable. One noted American actress of the Edwardian period is reputed to have had written into her contract that her dressing rooms must be on the same floor as the stage and that she may not be required to climb even a single stair. When the company was booked into a theatre in which all the dressing rooms were two steps up from the stage, carpenters had to be called in to build a shallow ramp over the steps so that the esteemed lady might glide into her dressing room unencumbered by stairs as per the terms of her contract.
Of course these leading ladies could not be expected to dress themselves, nor was it generally practical for them to have been able to do so. Frequently, they would be expected to make five or six costume changes in the course of an evening, often with only a few minutes allotted before they had to return to the stage. Consequently, a vitally important addition to any prominent actress's dressing room was her dresser, a maid-servant who would have her next change of costume laid out ready for her the moment she left the stage and expertly help her into it without wasting a precious moment. Often these dressers would be employees of the theatre, but, since a good dresser was an absolute treasure, most of the top stars would employ their own.
These theatrical dressers become wonderfully expert. I have seen an actress come off the stage after a big scene quite exhausted, and yet only have a few minutes before the next act. She stood in the middle of her dressing-room while we talked, and at once her attendant set to work. The great lady remained like a block. Quickly the dresser undid her neck-band, and unhooked the bodice after removing the lace, took away the folded waistband, slipped off the skirt, and in a twinkling the long ball dress was over the actress's head and being fastened behind. Her arms were slipped into the low bodice, and while she arranged the jewels or her corsage the dresser was doing her up at the back. Down sat the actress in a chair placed for her, and while she rouged more strongly to suit the gaiety of the scene, the dresser was putting feathers and ornaments into her hair, pinning a couple of little curls to her wig to hang down her neck, and just as they both finished this rapid transformation the call boy rapped.
From 'Behind the Footlights' by Mrs. Alec-Tweedie
On this page are descriptions of the dressing rooms of some of the stars of the day as published in the period.
(Green Room Gossip, by Archibald Haddon - Stanley Paul & co., 1902)
Chapter VIII - DRESSING ROOM IMPRESSIONS
HON. LIEUT. GLADYS COOPER.
An enormous fancy horse-shoe hangs over the lintel outside the door of Miss Gladys Cooper's dressing-room at The Playhouse, and on its square-headed nails the names of plays in which Miss Cooper has appeared at that theatre are inscribed. "One of them ran successfully all through the air raids," says the beautiful actress. The dressing-room is a combination of tidy office and cosy boudoir, with a brightly-lighted making-up room attached. Portraits of theatrical celebrities, autographed to the actress-manager, crowd the walls. Interspersed among the knickknacks are numerous photographs of Miss Cooper's pretty children. The collection of grotesque black cats which completely covers the top of a wardrobe are gifts from her children, one for luck from each child on the occasion of every premiere at which mother appeared.
"To Gladys Cooper from R.L., Somme Battle" is the inscription on an ink-bottle made out of the nose of a German shell - a gift from Mr. Robert Loraine. A remarkable relic in a prominent position is a German shell which was picked up at Ypres. It bears the inscription: "Presented to Hon. Lieut. Gladys Cooper by her fellow-officers of the 2nd Inf. Brigade, A.I.F."
Miss Cooper pulls down a parchment roll which is fixed on the door. The roll is headed "Friends," and it is covered with autographs of famous people who have visited the dressing-room. The name of Clara Butt Rumford looms large in the centre. Poor Basil Hallam's is near the top. The first signature is J. M. Barrie's; one of the latest is Mr. Lloyd George's, close to Mr. Winston Churchill's.
FROM KEAN TO FLORENCE SMITHSON.
The most historic dressing-room in London was occupied by Miss Florence Smithson in a pantomime at Drury Lane. It was the "star's" room, a few paces from the wings. Here, where the principal girl made up her dainty features for the pantomime, Edmund Kean probably donned his gabardine as Shylock on the night of his wonderful debut 108 years ago.
Macready dressed here, too, and, in more recent times, Henry Irving, Forbes-Robertson, Henry Neville, Dan Leno, Mrs. John Wood, Fanny Brough, and H. B. Irving. An old-fashioned fireplace and an extraordinarily high ceiling were the only indications of age. All else was ultramodern, from the bright pink upholstery to a large model aeroplane dangling over the tidy dressing-table. Indeed; the keynote of the place was youth. The principal girl was youth personified, and the name of the character she played was Joy. Her small daughter, of whom there were two portraits on the mantelpiece, also, curiously enough, bore the uncommon Christian name of Joy. Moreover, the spirit of happy childhood pervaded the ancient place in the form of numerous coloured pictures of laughing baby girls. What company, when lights were low, for the ghosts of the great departed!
VIOLET VANBRUGH'S ADVICE.
Sunlight was streaming into Miss Violet Vanbrugh's room at the Court Theatre. A temporary screen round the dresssing-table enabled the actress to make-up by electric light. "I love the sunshine," she said, "but if I were to paint my face on the other side of the screen, it really would appear to be 'Trimmed in Scarlet' before the footlights." The room is usually Miss Mary Grey's, so almost the only ornament pertaining to Miss Vanbrugh was a portrait of her gifted sister Irene. Mascots were conspicuous by their absence.
Miss Vanbrugh's voice was soft and musical, and her manner gently feminine, in striking contrast to the tone and demeanour of the flamboyant women she has played in recent years. "Since my Claire Forster in 'A Woman in the Case,'" she said, "I have had numerous plays written for me round that type of part, and as some of them are good ones, it has been to my advantage to continue the line of character. But one's first love is always Shakespeare. I consider myself fortunate in the opportunities I have had to play in Shakespeare. One comes back to modern comedy from Shakespeare with a tremendous amount learned. Acquaintance with his art gives to the performer an added ease and suppleness which are invaluable."
As the actress spoke, a whole gallery of Shakespearean heroines, played with the greatest distinction by Violet Vanbrugh, flashed across the mind - her Queen Katherine in "Henry VIII." at His Majesty's, her Beatrice in "Much Ado," her Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, and Portia.
"When I was studying Shakespeare," continued Miss Vanbrugh, "I profited greatly by a suggestion made to me by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones. Perhaps you will mention it, as a hint to young actresses? I read Milton's majestic poetry aloud for half an hour every day. Shakespeare's verse, by comparison, seemed almost colloquial."
"Another useful experience, as long as you do not have too much of it, is to appear in a full-length play twice nightly on the halls, as I did in 'Trimmed in Scarlet.' The need to take your lines and business at a greater pace reveals the fact that much of the calculated slowness in the legitimate theatre is quite unnecessary. One learns, indeed, from everything; even from one night stands. I arrived recently with my company in a small town in the north. We must have looked rather forlorn. 'Be that them?' said a girl in the street, in a disappointed tone. 'I'll keep my money for the pictures!'"
LADY FORBES-ROBERTSON IN A HURRY.
Miss Gertrude Elliott (Lady Forbes-Robertson) had a dressing-room specially built on the St. James's stage six yards from the wings, for the production of "Eyes of Youth." It was a shack-like hut with double curtains instead of a door to facilitate ready entrance and exit, for the contrivance was necessitated by a lightning change of dress. The actress flashed by me in the character of a young girl, a lovely fleeting vision in pink chiffon. She disappeared through the curtains with the action of a diver taking a header. Exactly forty-two seconds later, Miss Elliott dashed back to the stage heaving a sigh as she ran this time as an elderly school marm. In less than a minute the girl's raven hair had become tinged with grey, and every item of her apparel, from wig to shoes, had been changed by two quick-fingered dressers.
Meanwhile an almost equally marvellous transformation had taken place on the stage. An exterior scene, the verandah of a country house, vanished in a twinkling upwards and sideways the sides along grooved steel rails and while it was disappearing, a schoolroom slid down stage into its place, also along steel rails, with a dozen scholars seated at their desks. All this happened almost before the audience could blink; certainly before it could detach its mind from the preceding scenes and prepare its attention for the next.
L'EXQUISE MARIE WEE.
Miss Marie Lohr's dressing-room at the Globe was a dream in chintz and rose du Barri. A large oblong ante room led into a smaller and brightly lighted make-up room, where the actress was applying to her features a touch of rouge from a silver rouge box which Bernhardt used for L'Aiglon. The Legion d'Honneur which Miss Lohr wore in L'Aiglon's death scene was suspended on the mirror a beautiful ornament, and authentically a Napoleon relic.
The ante room was a repository of articles of art and very dainty knick-knacks such as every woman loves, and a cabinet full of souvenirs and mascots. A golliwog, the Mascot-in-Chief, was the cabinet's presiding genius. A horse-shoe, also for luck, was made out of a piece of shell at Ypres by Captain Edmund Gwenn. A fine photograph of Miss Lohr's dramatic mentor, Mrs. Kendal, had a place of honour on the wall; also (I noted with a twinge of envy) two Garrick playbills. Another photograph, standing beside a basket of gorgeous flowers, bore this inscription by Mme. Rejane: "A ma jolie camarade, Marie Lohr, a Vexquise Marie-Odile."
JOSE IN CLOVER.
The loveliest dressing-room I have ever seen is Miss Jose Collins' at Daly's. It is a large symmetrical apartment, newly decorated, and the rose du Barri colour scheme tones with the flaming orange costume of the Carmenesque singer. Carpets, draperies, tablecovers, all are rose du Barri, with a narrow bordering of black. A corner settee, similarly upholstered, is scattered with black cushions. Other corners are occupied by a small grand piano and an elegant Adam bureau laden with books, among them a complete set of Dumas' novels.
Uniformly framed sketches of star actors and actresses by Buchel, Hassall, and Van Dusen, cover the walls. There are about a hundred of these portraits, representing almost every well-known player in London. In addition, autographed photographs of celebrities meet the eye at every turn. One of them is inscribed "to the English thrush" another, Mr. Oscar Asche's, "to a great artist;" another is that of Miss Lottie Collins - Jose's mother.
This enchanting boudoir is oft-times a tea-party playground for children, and the floor is strewn with at least fifty toys - teddy bears, golliwogs, bunnies, and woolly mascots galore. Kewpies, too, on the dressing-table; and everywhere gifts from admirers.
HER LADYSHIP'S LEDGERS.
Ledgers in an actress' dressing-room! A pile of them on the mantelpiece, a despatch case bursting with papers, a waste-paper basket, a stack of scripts on the dressing-table - these betokened the business woman "whose keen instinct and sound judgment," Sir Charles Wyndham once remarked, "materially contributed to the success of my management."
The room was Lady Wyndham's, at the Criterion Theatre. Miss Mary Moore, as her ladyship is still styled in the playbills, dictated important instructions regarding the future of the New Theatre while her dresser was putting the finishing touches to her stage attire. Her son, Mr. Bronson Albery, ran through the contents of the despatch case, and details of managerial policy were settled by rapid question and answer.
"I do these things not because I like it," said the actress "but because I must. My real love is acting, not business. My idea of perfect happiness would be to have a good part to perform without managerial distractions. Still, the combination of responsibilities has been a great relief to me since the loss of Sir Charles."
Do not imagine, however, that the feminine touch was negligible in the room. Miss Moore prided herself on a delicate lace cover to her dressing-table. Little sprays of white heather were attached to lamp brackets and mirrors. A toy mascot on the wall, a bunch of rhododendrons from her Sunningdale home - these were the really essential adjuncts. The one and only picture in the room the last photograph taken of Sir Charles Wyndham constituted a more truly human touch than a wilderness of ledgers.
JUST AN ENGLISH GIRL.
Miss Winifred Barnes is a typical English girl - the embodiment of the poet's "nut-brown maid" - a bonny brunette, with perfect oval features and eyes so large and beautiful that the spell of their enchantment lingers in the memory. Miss Barnes made the prettiest picture imaginable in her blue-and-white cretonne dressing-room, amid dazzling lights and flowers and frocks of lovely hues.
Miss Barnes touched wood! "This is only the seventh play in which I have appeared in my ten years on the stage," she said, "so I have had my share of successes touch wood! I am ambitious, but I am quite content to play nice English girls of the ingenue type. It pleases me to think that audiences like me in that way. I realise, though, that ambition can only be attained by work. The higher the star, the greater the work. That is why I have just been studying music and singing for four months with Jean de Reszke in Paris, and I intend to return for another course as soon as I can. I started in the chorus, you know. They picked me out of the chorus of 'Our Miss Gibbs' at the Gaiety in 1909. That encouraged me. I took singing lessons, and four years later George Edwardes gave me a succession of principal parts in musical comedies at Daly's. It was there, eventually, that I made my greatest hit, as Betty. My one 'straight' part with Hawtrey in 'Anthony in Wonderland' was also an encouraging experience, and if the legitimate stage calls me again, I shall be ready."
There were two black cats on the dressing-table. They reminded Miss Barnes of the Sunday morning before the production of "Maggie."
"I was playing golf at Eastbourne," she said. "We were six miles from the nearest house, so you can imagine my surprise when a dear little black kitten came up to me on the links. After that, I quite expected to make a success as Maggie."
The success was duly achieved and maybe the kitten had less to do with it than Winifred Barnes assisted by Jean de Reszke.
LOTTIE NOT CHARLOTTE VENNE.
A red velvet pig and a sprig of white heather on Miss Lottie Venne's dressing-table may had have something to do with her success in "The Romantic Age," especially as the pig had been the comedienne's dressing-room companion for twenty years.
But I had my doubts. Miss Venne seemed rather taken aback when I declared myself a sceptic, but she eventually conceded that well, yes perhaps very likely the success was possibly due as much to Lottie Venne's art as to the influence of the red velvet pig and the heather. Miss Venne is essentially a London actress, for all the characters she has played have been created by her chiefly on the London stage. I say "chiefly" because Lottie Venne is peculiarly a London idol. She has only acted in the provinces on fugitive occasions, while America is totally unacquainted with her inimitable art; but that is America's loss, not ours.
Miss Venne resolutely refused to talk about herself. That has been said a hundred times of the subjects of theatrical interviews. This time it is true. She was eloquent enough about "The Romantic Age" and Mr. Arthur Wontner, but when it came to Lottie Venne ....
Her sense of humour, however, could not resist just one little story at her own expense. "I suggested one day to Mr. Cyril Maude," she said, "that the name Lottie had ceased to be appropriate to me. 'Why don't you bill me as Charlotte Venne? I asked. 'Charlotte is such a nice name - it means graciousness and it is ever so much more dignified. 'Yes, dear,' Mr. Maude replied. 'I will do so provided you will take ten pounds a week less.' Consequently there is still only one Lottie Venne."
JUST PLAIN MARY BROUGH
The favourite comedienne, Miss Mary Brough, is the surviving member, on the stage, of a famous family of English comedians. Her father was the inimitable Lal Brough. Pointing to an umbrella in her dressing-room, at the Comedy, she informed me that the ebony and silver handle was once a walking stick presented to her father by Fred Leslie when they were playing in the comic opera "Rip Van Winkle" at that theatre. On the handle is the inscription, "From Young Rip to Old Nick." Leslie was Rip and Brough was the Nick Vedder.
"I remember, as a tiny tot," said Miss Brough, "sitting in the royal box at the first performance ever given in this theatre, which was opened under the management of my father, in conjunction with Alexander Henderson and his wife, Lydia Thompson. The comic opera was 'La Mascotte' with my father and Miss Thompson as principal members of the cast. Their management lasted for several years, and besides 'La Mascotte' and 'Rip Van Winkle' they gave other comic operas, all of them successes. My father was a great favourite with King Edward, and I remember quite distinctly when, in 'Rip Van Winkle,' the late King - then Prince of Wales - told my father that the pipe he was smoking was not a correct German pipe, and that next time he visited Germany he would bring him the real article, which he did. I am a real cockney, born in South Lambeth at a house occupied by our family for more than forty years. When I was a child, South Lambeth was in the country. Our garden was an immense affair, and my father was very proud of it, particularly of a large mulberry tree that stood in the centre of a lawn and bore luscious fruit each year. Now, alas, both house and garden are gone, and the site is occupied by an electrical works. Just as my father was known among his friends as Lal, I am known to my friends as Dolly. Mr. Arthur Collins saysthat I am 'only Mary on the bills.' The other day I received a telegram from a cinema firm addressed Dolly Brough, so I suppose I am to be known in film-land as Dolly Brough; but, actually, I am and always shall be just plain Mary Brough."
PEG OF ALL OUR HEARTS.
"Welcome, a thousand welcomes, to 'Peg o' My Heart.' Peg has assuredly come to stay." That is what I printed the morning after Miss Laurette Taylor's first appearance in England in 1914. Miss Taylor subsequently played Peg in London for the thousandth time.
"But I don't want to go on playing Peg indefinitely," Miss Taylor told me at the Garrick. "It has been Peg this and Peg that for years. The monotony of it was deadly. I would have been enormously rich if I had stuck to Peg, but I wanted to be an actress, an artist, not an automaton. When I told that to David Warfield he said: 'Oh, my dear, it's better to be loved than admired.' He meant, I think, that versatility was a quality many admired, but few cared to witness. I remembered, however, that the big people of the stage the Duses, Bernhardts, and Ellen Terrys played anything and everything. So I launched out in other directions. I tried to make my personality malleable. I played the part of an elderly mother to a boy of nineteen; and a New York paper said next day: 'Peg was very good last night.' Then I tried the character of a Cockney girl. Still they headlined me as Peg. After that I became a shopgirl in 'Happiness' a girl of fifteen, then eighteen, then twenty. This time the newspapers dropped the Peg and referred to me as Miss Taylor. It is always Miss Taylor now, and I am satisfied. That is how I succeeded in getting out of my groove. Do not think me ungrateful, though. Peg brought me a great many evidences of your playgoers' esteem. The presents I received were delightfully human. One was a pound of tea, sent to my hotel because the sender thought that I could not be too well catered for. A dear old lady sent me a doyley embroidered with butterflies. 'Something nice for you to look at,' she said. Another admirer of Peg forwarded half-a-dozen handkerchiefs, with pictures of Peg's dog Michael done in indelible ink in the corners."
THE BROKEN MIRROR.
An eighteenth-century girl in a gorgeous green-and-gold pannier dress, with a becoming patch on her cheek, curtsied gracefully in a dressing-room at the Princes Theatre. The vision of loveliness and maidenly charm was Lady Mary Carlisle (Miss Maggie Teyte), the heroine of 'Monsieur Beaucaire.' You caught her at a moment when even a successful prima donna found occasion to blush with pleasure.
The room had just been invaded by four renowned prima donne and a famous beauty - Mme. Clara Butt, Mme. Perceval Allen, Miss Carmen Hill, Mme. Zelie de Lussan, and Miss Constance Collier. The small apartment, with its bright cretonne upholstery, had suddenly become a golden treasury of song. After the congratulations on the young prima donna's success, Miss Teyte remarked:
"You see, there is plenty of camaraderie in our profession. Do not believe the stories you hear of insensate jealousy among us. There is no warmer admirer of an artist's work than another artist."
That notion dispelled, you were rather relieved to find that theatrical superstition continues to flourish even in the upper circles of prima donnadom. Miss Teyte had recently lost her one and only dressing-room curio.
"I smashed my little mirror on the first night of 'Beaucaire,'" she said. "It had been my mascot for nearly ten years, and had brought me great luck. Being a woman, I could not resist the temptation to inform the author, Mr. Frederick Lonsdale, of the disaster. He was appropriately horrified. How 'Beaucaire' succeeded after that I cannot imagine. There must be something uncannily irresistible about a piece which has defied even the omen of a broken mirror."
Mme. Lydia Lopokova's laughing face became clouded, and her eyes filled at the thought of the measureless suffering in Russia.
"But let us talk of happy things," she said. "We are young, and a new world is before us."
A gilt horseshoe bound with white heather, a first-night gift, hung over the dressing-table. The walls were crowded with sketches by artist friends of the fairy of the ballet. An infinite number of costumes, wonderfully varied, and all beautifully made, filled the wardrobes and occupied every available space.
"That is a very heavy dress," the dancer said, pointing to the one she wears in "The Good Humoured Ladies, but this is made of gossamer," and she caressed the costume for "Les Sylphides."
There were hats and dainty silken shoes by the score. The hats matched the dresses in colour and form.
"A pair of shoes only lasts for two performances. Most of them come from Italy, where they specialise in making strong, comfortable toes. The toes wear out immediately, and then I use the shoes for practising."
The carpet was strewn with red and white petals, and heaped on a table were masses of gorgeous blooms.
"I love flowers, and these are bouquets from kind people in front. They remind me of sun and warmth and friendship. You see that fan? I brought it from Spain. I have it near me because it is so warm, so full of colour. This is the first time I have visited England. It is worth all the hardship we have suffered to be here. I love your public. They are so loyal, so generous, so affectionate; and although I feel very tired at the end of the day, for we practise and rehearse all day, it is a happy tiredness."
CARPENTIER AND ELSIE JANIS.
Miss Elsie Janis, in a French officer's uniform, was putting up her fists to Carpentier when I looked into her dressingroom at the Palace Theatre. Fortunately for the champion, the call-boy intervened. A moment before, with Mrs. Janis listening admiringly, the actress had been trying vainly in voluble French to make Carpentier recall some happening at the front which the boxer could not, or would not, remember - hence her uplifted "dooks" and Capentier's prospective defeat.
Miss Janis and her mother were holding a reception of young war heroes. They included Mr. Maurice Chevalier, Mr. Tom Hearn (the Lazy Juggler, still in khaki), and Major W. C. Campbell, the aviator who brought down thirty observation balloons. A biscuit-coloured Pekingese, on a round eiderdown pillow, snoozed contentedly through the cross-fire of rapid talk. Otherwise the little scene, in its setting of dazzling lights, bright chintz covers and draperies, and glistening mirrors, was delightfully gay and animated.
The customary collection of mascots, without which no dressing-room would be complete, contained seven horseshoes, tied with British colours, and hung in various parts of the room. The principal shoe was presented to Miss Janis thirteen years ago, when she made her first hit, in 'The Vanderbilt Cup,' in New York. It has travelled with her everywhere, and, of course, is chiefly responsible for her successes. I have a suspicion, however, that Miss Janis' real mascot is Mrs. Janis - the most assiduously attentive mother in the world.
"I had a terrible dream, an awful nightmare, last night," said Mrs. Janis, "I dreamed that Elsie was married!"