Raise a glass to history.

Tag: Theater

Claire Heliot

Have a drink with: Claire Heliot
“Sentimentalist and lion tamer.”

Ask her about: herding cats

In 1905, the New York Hippodrome opened its doors with a banner performance of A Yankee Circus on Mars, a freewheeling half-circus, half-opera in which the King of Mars, acting as an intergalactic talent scout of sorts, comes to Earth to save a failing New England circus. A splendid spectacle, the show featured an ensemble of hundreds of actors wearing grand robes and frolicking amidst fifty-foot dragon sculptures, live elephants and decadent garden sets. Its star was a lion tamer named Claire Heliot, making her major American debut.

A Yankee Circus on Mars had snapped up Heliot for good reason: she was a sensation in the turn-of-the-century press, journalists marveling over this fair-haired young woman who, alone in the ring in a white satin gown, commanded the attention of a dozen lions. In her showpiece act, Heliot set an elegant table and invited the lions to sit with her, feeding each in turn a hunk of horseflesh with her own fingers, and as a closing flourish offering them “her own pretty head as a delectable morsel for dessert.” (The dinner guests respectfully declined this course.) Heliot’s lions agreeably performed with a group of boar hounds, doing tricks and pulling the dogs about in a chariot; and then in an act that seemed to defy both nature and physics, the lions Sascha and Nero walked from opposite sides of a tightrope towards each other, pausing to balance nose-to-nose in the center.

Heliot would lie down across the bodies of four reclining lions, pose for portraits in her boudoir cuddling the mane of a massive male, and play with the lions as though they were happy kittens. She typically finished her act by slinging a 350-pound male over her shoulders like an overgrown scarf and triumphantly striding from the ring.

Press headlines described Heliot as “frail but fearless.” She was neither; but they did not know what else to say.

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The Astor Place Riot

Have a drink with: Edwin Forrest & William Charles Macready
The play’s the thing…

Ask them about: Dead sheep as theater criticism

Astor Place Riot

The New York Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Casear, in which the emperor bears a striking and not unintentional resemblance to Donald Trump, was hounded by controversy throughout its run. On June 16th, the performance was interrupted by protestors after Caesar’s assassination scene, with a right-wing activist climbing onstage to call attention to the “political violence” of the production.

This is not the first time American theater – or American Shakespeare performance, for that matter – has been a forum for bitter fighting over contemporary politics. When actors rallied near Manhattan’s Astor Place in support of the Public Theater shortly after the contested performance, it was no doubt with some specific history in mind: namely, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, in which a nasty feud between Shakespearean actors led to an actual battle between New York’s elite and a burgeoning nativist movement.

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Tom Thumb Weddings

Have a drink with: General & Mrs. Tom Thumb
Tiny wedding of the century!

Ask them about: Will there be ice cream?

Tom Thumb Weddings

I’m over at Atlas Obscura today writing about the Tom Thumb wedding, an American dramatic tradition in which kids put on elaborate, supremely awkward mock weddings for paying audiences. These plays began in the 19th century as a wink and a nod to the “Fairy Wedding” of celebrity little people Charles Stratton (aka “General Tom Thumb”) and Lavinia Warren, and have been undertaken through history as a fundraiser, a crash course in etiquette and promises, or presumably simply so adults could enjoy their children’s embarrassment over cocktails. Click over to Atlas Obscura for more.

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