Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Barbette - Bertram Mills Circus, 1927

My introduction to Barbette was on the Texas Dates in the early 70's..He was having a run through of the web number with all the girls..We were all waiting for him and talking about how strict we had heard he was( I had been warned from my sisters that you didn't want to piss him off)..In walked this small man,saying "Hello Ladies",in a very high pitched feminine sounding voice..He looked us all over,smiled and looked directly at me and asked,"Are you a Duke Girl"? I answered,Yes Sir..He smiled again and asked,"Are you always this polite".? I answered,No Sir..He then giggled and said,"I didn't think so"..

....Barbette was an American female impersonator, high wire performer and trapeze artist born in Texas on December 19, 1899. Barbette attained great popularity throughout the United States but his greatest fame came in Europe and especially Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Barbette began performing as an aerialist at around the age of 14 as one-half of a circus act called The Alfaretta Sisters. After a few years of circus work, Barbette went solo and adopted his exotic-sounding pseudonym. He performed in full drag, revealing himself as male only at the end of his act.

...Barbette made his European debut in 1923, having been sent by the William Morris Agency first to England and then to Paris. He appeared in such venues as the Casino de Paris, the Moulin Rouge, the Empire, the M├ędrano Circus, the Alhambra Theater and the Folies Bergere.

He returned to America in 1924 to appear in The Passing Show of 1924, which ran for four months beginning in September. Also in this timeframe he became a featured attraction with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and toured London, Brussels and Berlin. It was during an engagement at the London Palladium that Barbette was found engaged in sexual activity with another man. His contract was cancelled and he was never able to obtain a work permit for England again.
Cocteau wrote in 1923 to Belgian friend and critic Paul Collaer:

"Next week in Brussels, you'll see a music-hall act called 'Barbette' that has been keeping me enthralled for a fortnight. The young American who does this wire and trapeze act is a great actor, an angel, and he has become the friend to all of us. Go and see him ... and tell everybody that he is no mere acrobat in women's clothes, nor just a graceful daredevil, but one of the most beautiful things in the theatre. Stravinsky, Auric, poets, painters, and I myself have seen no comparable display of artistry on the stage since Nijinsky."

Barbette continued to perform until the mid- to late 1930s. Most sources report 1938, although some place the date at 1936 and one as late as 1942.

The end of Barbette's career is attributed to a number of causes, including a fall, pneumonia, polio or some combination of the three. All sources generally agree that whatever the cause, Barbette was left in extreme pain and in need of surgery and extensive rehabilitation to allow him to walk again.

He became the artistic director and aerialist trainer for a number of circuses, including Ringling Bros. (staging shows which have been described as "reinvent[ing] the aerial ballet" and the Shrine Circus.
Barbette specialized in choreographing troupes of female aerialists who performed under such names as The Bird Cage Girls, The Swing High Girls, The Whirl Girls and the Cloud Swing Girls.
He created the circus sequences for the Orson Welles-produced Broadway musical Around the World. Barbette created the aerial ballet for Disney on Parade and toured with it in Australia from 1969 through 1972.

Barbette spent his last years in Texas, living in Round Rock and Austin with his sister, Mary Cahill, often in severe pain. He committed suicide by overdose on August 5, 1973. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in Round Rock Cemetery.

....Barbette was hired to coach Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis on gender illusion for the film Some Like It Hot (1959).


....Cocteau fell in love with the Barbette persona but their affair was short-lived.

Others in Barbette's European circle included Josephine Baker, Anton Dolin, Mistinguett and Sergei Diaghilev


....Barbette was an American trapeze artist who performed in Paris in the 1920s