Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940), a coloratura, was singing Lucia di Lammermoor in Puebla, Mexico, on a stage flooded because of a rainstorm and a leaky roof. To keep from ruining her dress, she held it a few inches above the water. This displeased a woman in a box, who commented on the shocking display of a lady’s ankles. Ms. Tetrazzini walked underneath the woman’s box, then improvised her own words to the music of the opera: “Madam, you are shocked, very shocked, I know it, yes I do. But do you know the stage is soaking wet and our dresses all are spoiling, yet just to please you I am ready, perfectly ready, to let my dress drag through the wet and be completely ruined if you, dear Madam, will promise to buy me a lovely new one.” This gave the audience a laugh and kept the critic quiet for the rest of the performance.
Marie Camargo (1710-1770) was an innovator in ballet. Before Ms. Camargo, ballerinas danced in ankle-length skirts. Ms. Camargo caused a scandal by dancing in skirts that showed part of her calf; however, this allowed her to create ballet moves that featured the ballerinas’ feet—she was the likely inventor of the entrechat-quatre, a move in which the ballerina jumps and crosses her feet four times while in the air. Later, Marie Sallé (1707-1756) further improved the ballerina’s clothing by dancing in a petticoat and a simple dress—although she still wore a corset. Today, classical ballerinas dance in tights and a short skirt known as a tutu.
Actor Sheldon Leonard was surprised by the theatrical audiences in Palm Springs. While he was touring in Margin for Error, he noticed that on opening night the theater was packed with Palm Springs socialites, dressed to the hilt. However, after the intermission, the theater was half empty. This made Mr. Leonard worry, until the theater manager told him, “It’s always that way. They come for the opening. The women see what all the other women are wearing and that’s it. Off they go, back home.”
Gertrude Stein was able to buy paintings by Picasso and other famous artists early in their careers partly because she economized on clothing. In a conversation with Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, she advised Hadley to buy clothes for durability and not for style, and to buy paintings with the money thus saved. During the conversation, Hadley had a difficult time refraining from looking at Ms. Stein’s eccentric and decidedly unfashionable clothing.
Giacomo Puccini’s first big success was the opera Manon Lescaut, for which soprano Lucrezia Bori once bought a beautiful dress in which to make her debut as Manon in a revival. Puccini visited her backstage, looked at the dress, and told her that it was too lovely—after all, her character was supposed to be penniless and starving. Then, to make the dress more suitable to her character, he splashed it with coffee. Ms. Bori was not pleased with Puccini’s attention to detail.
American soprano Olive Fremstad disliked meeting her fans. Knowing that some of her fans would insist on coming backstage to meet her after she sang the part of Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, during the final act she always wore street clothes around which she wrapped yards of chiffon. After the act was over, she unwrapped the chiffon and was on her way home before her fans had a chance to come backstage.
Clara Louise Kellogg (1842-1916) owned her own opera costumes. While performing in La Traviata, she discovered that the co-starring tenor had chronically dirty hands and was leaving his fingerprints on her costumes. Ms. Kellogg spoke with the offending tenor, who offered to wash his hands before performances if she bought the soap—which she did for the remaining performances.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to coordinate clothing with one’s friends. Once, Peter Ustinov invited Wolf Mankowitz to attend a play. When they met to go to the play, Mr. Ustinov was wearing comfortable clothing, but Mr. Mankowitz was dressed up. Then Mr. Mankowitz invited Mr. Ustinov to attend a play. This time when they met to go to the play, Mr. Mankowitz was wearing comfortable clothing, but Mr. Ustinov was dressed up.
Oliver Herford always wore suits of the same color. Mr. Herford explained that each spring he sent his tailor a sample of his dandruff and asked him to match it exactly. He once wore an outrageous derby, explaining that it was a whim of his wife’s. Advised to throw the derby away, he declined, saying, “You don’t know my wife—she has a whim of iron.”
During a performance in the ballet Firebird in New York, Irina Baronova leaped onto the stage, only to have her shoulder straps break and the top of her costume fall down. Her dance partner, Paul Petroff, reached under her arm and held up her costume while she finished the dance. Later, they examined her costume and discovered that it had been sabotaged—a razor blade had been used to almost sever the shoulder straps.
In Paris, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who was later to be Pope John XXIII, attended a reception at which the hostess wore a low-cut gown. Everyone watched Father Roncalli to see his reaction to the hostess’ clothing, and he set everyone at ease by saying, “I can’t imagine why all the guests keep looking at me, a poor old sinner, when my neighbor, our charming hostess, is so much younger and more attractive.”
Throughout his life, Jackie Gleason kept gaining and losing weight. Eventually, he had three sets of clothing—one for when he weighed 200 pounds, one for 240 pounds, and one for 280 pounds. He called the largest set of clothing his hippopotamus clothes.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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