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From "Louie" to "Loie"
She once was the most famous dancer in the world, though some who saw her perform wondered whether what she did was really dancing, and she herself had her doubts. What brought her fame was her way of manipulating voluminous folds of silk while having beams of colored light play upon them. She may or may not have been a true mistress of terpsichore, but she certainly taught the light to dance.
In fact, this woman did much, much more than that. She broke the mold of traditional choreography and prepared the way for the development of modern dance. She helped to launch other pioneers, among them Isadora Duncan. A "magician of light," she made important contributions to stage lighting and lesser ones to cinema techniques. She became the personification of Art Nouveau, the inspiration for artists who, idealizing her, portrayed her more often than any other woman of her time. She, in turn, promoted the work of her artist friends and was responsible for the founding of two art museums. An inspiration for poets as well as artists, she served as a symbol of the symbolist movement.
She was born in America but was made in France, or so she said. Paris was where (in 1892) she became an overnight sensation, where she spent most of the rest of her life, and where (in 1928) she died and her ashes were deposited. Paris was also where she met the woman who was to be her lifelong companion. Her other Parisian friends included such famous people as the novelists Alexandre Dumas fils and Anatole France, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and the scientists Pierre and MarieCurie and their daughter Eve. During World War I she repaid France by urging her fellow Americans to join the conflict on that country's side, and by persuading them to contribute to the relief of its wounded and its war widows and orphans. Still, there was ambivalence in her national loyalties. Francophile though she became, she always kept her U.S. citizenship and her quintessentially American character.
She could boast of friendships not only with French celebrities but also with American tycoons and with Romanian and other royalty. One of the closest of all was her friendship with the ravishing Princess and then Queen Marie of Romania.
This remarkable American was something of a paradox. A tall and lovely sylph in posters and sculptures, she was in reality a rather chubby woman with a fairly plain face. A dance innovator, she possessed no formal training in choreography. Eventually a cofounder of art museums, she had never even seen an art exhibit before going to Paris at the age of thirty. A close and respected associate of some of the most learned men and women in the world, she could claim no institutional education beyond that offered by the common schools of Illinois in the 1860s and 1870s.
What she did have, in addition to her winning ways, was a dauntless will to get ahead, together with enough intelligence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity to give effect to that will. These qualities were not only recognized but often admired by others, including the prominent art critic Arsene Alexandre, who in 1900 lauded her vitality and positive drive and proclaimed her to be a very pushing woman in the best sense of the word. The strength of these traits enabled her to keep going in the face of repeated disappointments and disasters.
She was humiliated when her husband of nearly three years turned out to be a bigamistindeed, a trigamist. As an impresario, she once put on a play that not merely flopped but was one of the worst debacles in the history of the New York stage. She confronted financial ruin when, because of the illness of her mother, she broke a contract to perform in Russia and was sued for damages. Though one of the highest paid performers of the periodand one who benefited from a succession of bountiful angelsshe bore heavy expenses, mismanaged her money, and was continually in debt. Her kind of dancing was strenuous; it was especially exhausting when she was weakened by one of her frequent colds or bronchial infections. She sometimes feared she was going blind, and her eyesight suffered terribly from the glaring light to which, year after year, she was exposed. Yet, like the trouper she was, she carried on.
When too old and fat for a performer, she became a teacher, one who instructed girls in "natural dancing" and directed their performances as long as she lived. Through her pupils she continued, time after time, to come up with some new and wonderful spectacle. She won applause with her showmanship even when she was in her sixties and had to compete with Josephine Baker, the young and terrific African American dancer, for the attention of the Paris public.
She rose to extraordinary heights from a quite modest background. Her accomplishments were such that she might well have been satisfied with an unadorned account of her beginnings. She was not. Once she had achieved celebrity, she knocked several years off her age and made up fantastic tales about what was left of her early years. She created her own myth.
A century after her sudden rise to fame, she was no longer remembered except among people interested in modern dance or in Art Nouveau. Even they could have only a sketchy and inaccurate conception of her personal life. The full and true story remained to be told.
Her earliest universe, so far as her own memory went, was a Chicago boardinghouse as it existed soon after the Civil War. Her father, Reuben Fuller, owned and ran the boardinghouse with the assistance of her mother, Delilah. Living there also were her brother Frank, several years older than she, and varying numbers of servants and boarders. She was then a plump little girl with a round face, turned-up nose, big blue eyes, and light reddish brown hair. Her name was Marie Louise and she was called Louie for short.
As she grew up, her memory was stretched farther back through the recollections of her parents. Fullers on her father's side and Eatons and Paddocks on her mother's, she learned, had served with bravery and sacrifice in the Revolutionary War, so that she was entitled to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, but never did.
Reuben Fuller, when a small boy, had come west from New York State with his father, Jacob, and other members of the family, traveling in covered wagons. According to family tradition, the wagons got stuck in the mud when they reached the marshy site of Chicago, which at that time was only a cluster of huts near a frontier outpost, Fort Dearborn. About sixteen or seventeen miles farther on, the Fullers arrived at land they liked, high and dry, around Brush Hill. Here Jacob bought a large tract from the federal government and began to farm.
Reuben Fuller and Delilah Eaton were married when he was nearly twenty-three and she nineteen. That was in 1850, when the lure of gold was attracting tens of thousands of young men to California. Reuben resisted as long as he could, then left his bride to join the gold rush. He took the roundabout sea route, going by way of New York City and the Isthmus of Panama. After two long years he suddenly reappeared, to the surprise of Delilah, who had heard nothing from him about his coming home. He now told her of his experiences while awayhow, for instance, he had barely managed to save himself when his ship caught fire on the return voyage in the Gulf of Mexico. Years later there was still a tinge of bitterness in her voice when she gave her account of that trying time to her daughter.
Whether or not Reuben had struck gold in California, he now had enough money to buy a large farm, which was located about two miles east of Fullersburg, the hamlet that had grown out of the original Jacob Fuller settlement and was inhabited mainly by Jacob's relatives and descendants. As a farmer, Reuben was more interested in raising horses than in raising anything else. He bred and trained trotters and ran them in the harness races at the county fair each fall. A first-rate fiddler and graceful dancer, he provided music for both barn and ballroom dances when not doing a few steps himself. In the winter, when farming was slow, he sometimes took over the management of the Fullersburg tavern that belonged to his father. Abraham Lincoln supposedly stopped there when traveling between Springfield and Chicago.
In January 1862, when Delilah was expecting, the day-to-day temperatures ranged far below zero and the farmhouse was impossible to keep warm. At the tavern the general room was heated by a tremendous stove. There a bed was set up for Delilah and there Marie Louise was born, as Delilah afterward related in impressive detail. "On that day the frost was thick on the window panes and the water froze in dishes two yards from the famous stove," the daughter remembered hearing, and at the "very moment" of her birth she caught a cold that she "never got rid of."
Fullersburg and the Reuben Fuller farm still seemed to have a bright economic future. The plank road from Chicagowith boards laid across wooden beams sunk in the earthran past the farm and through the village. For a toll, farmers and other haulers could take goods to market much more expeditiously than on an ordinary dirt road. By 1862 there was talk of something much better yet, a railroad. Surveyors for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy soon began to investigate possible routes. The Fullers expected the tracks to follow the plank road, but the surveyors finally chose a line one mile to the south, where the new village of Hinsdale consequently grew up.
Reuben did not soon forget the shattering of his hopes: he was still talking about it when Louie was old enough to understand what it was all about. "I remember the time that the railroad put the station a mile away from us," she wrote decades later. "Father was terribly hurt about it and disappointed. He had worked hard to put that little place [Fullersburg] on the map."
Chicagowhich not so long ago the Fullers had bypassed for Brush Hillnow was an incomparably more up-and-coming place. Indeed, it was the biggest of boomtowns, the fastest growing city in the United States. To Reuben, the city began to appeal more than the country, and innkeeping more than farming. When Louie was about two years old, he disposed of his farm, moved to Chicago with his family, and opened his boardinghouse.
In Chicago the Fullers did not go to church on Sunday; they went, instead, to the Progressive Lyceum along with other freethinkers. At the Lyceum's Sunday school there was a recitation period for children. Not long after the Fullers' arrival, little Louie, uninvited and unannounced, climbed up onto the platform, bowed like the orators she had seen up there, and then knelt and recited the prayer she had been taught to say at bedtime: "Now I lay me down to sleep; / I pray the Lord my soul to keep ..." This was more amusing than shocking to the audience of freethinking parents, who laughed when she finished. They laughed again when, too small to walk down the steps, she slid down, bumpety-bump.
The next Sunday, properly introduced, she curtsied and then spoke another piece, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which brought enthusiastic applause. Again she bumped down the steps, but this time no one made fun of her. Throughout her life she treasured her mother's report of these two performances. They amounted to her stage debut, she liked to think in retrospect, and they illustrated her precocious showmanship as well as her inborn quickness at learning her lines. She must have memorized "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on hearing her brother read it only once, or so she afterward assumed.
When Louie was five years old, her parents sent her to the nearest public school. Attendance was not compulsory in Illinois in those days, but the Fullers wanted their children to have the benefit of an education. Louie never forgot her first school day. "I returned home full of indignation," she recalled long afterward. "How could they send me thereone only needed five minutes to learn 'that' and I had lost a whole morning." She nevertheless had to keep on going, and she continued to resent it. Never willingly idle, she hated "sitting in the same place for hours doing nothing and waiting for the lesson to be learned" by the other pupils.
When Louie was seven, her mother gave birth to a second boy, Delbert. The next year, 1870, the federal census taker found eight persons living at the boardinghouse in addition to the five Fullers. Her parents and brothers provided good company for Louie, but she could have obtained little companionship or inspiration from the other residents. These included two domestic servants: Kate Duffy, fifteen, and Susan Black, eighteen. The boarders were John Miller, thirty, a machinist; Robert Sewell, twenty-nine, a day laborer; Richard Lichfield, twenty-three, a bookkeeper; William Ames, forty-seven, a carpenter; W. T. Judson, twenty-five, a harness maker; and M. C. Davis, twenty, unemployed. A local census the following year indicated that the number of boarders had increased from eight to thirteen.
That was the year of the great Chicago fire. The summer and fall of 1871 were unusually hot and dry, with continual strong winds from the southwest. On Sunday night, October 8, the conflagration started in a poor Irish neighborhood of wooden shacks and sheds. If the fire had moved straight north, it would eventually have engulfed the Fuller House, which was located at 164 West Lake Street, about five blocks west of the Chicago River's south branch. Luckily for the Fullers, the wind drove the flames to the northeast. Flying embers carried them across the river and through the business district, where brick and stone as well as wooden structures were destroyed. By Monday night, most of the city's core lay in blackened ruins, and more than three hundred of its inhabitants were dead. The spectaclethe orange glow at night, the billowing smoke by dayhad been clearly visible from 164 West Lake Street. Crowds of refugees moved through the street and brought the sights and sounds of the catastrophe close to home.
For the time being, though not rich, Reuben remained reasonably well off. The 1870 census credited him with $1,000 in real and $2,000 in personal propertyquite respectable sums for the period. The personal property consisted largely of horses, which he was buying and selling to supplement his income. An 1872 city directory listed him as a "horsetrader" (a term that carried the connotation of "sharp bargainer" or, in more modern discourse, "used-car salesman"). Chicago recovered rapidly from the fire until September 1873, when a financial panic set off a nationwide depression. The following year, no longer satisfied with his prospects where he was, Reuben decided to move again.
One of her first trips of any length, the new move was exciting enough at the time, though nothing as compared with the countless journeys by land and by sea that she was eventually to make. It was a two-hundred-mile train ride on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy, which ran through Hinsdale and on southwest across the state of Illinois. At Monmouth, a growing and promising town of a few thousand, Louie and the rest of the family got off the train. Here, in a prime location near the center of the business district, stood the National Hotel, an almost new three-story brick building with elegant stone trim on the windows and a stylish cornice at the eaves. This hotel, with her father as proprietor and manager, was now Louie's home.
"We move to Monmouth & I go 'puddling' in the mud," she remembered, "and am surprised by fashionable callers." This suggests that Louie, at twelve, was something of a tomboy, and also that, as newcomers, the Fullers received a warm welcome from the socially elect among the townspeople. Reuben had something to show and impress the visitors. It was a "rare curiosity in the shape of an old English Bible," containing quaint language such as this title: "The whole Booke of Psalmes, collected in English meeter ... and ... conferred with the Hebrew with apt notes to sing them with."
As a big-city girl in a small town, Louie had plenty of confidence in herself, and she quickly made her way into community activities. During her first winter in Monmouth she joined with prominent women to help raise money for the local unemployed, whose numbers had increased with the deepening of the business depression. "The entertainment given by the ladies of Monmouth last Friday, for the benefit of the poor, was a very decided success," the Monmouth Weekly Review reported on March 5, 1875. "After paying all expenses, they had something over one hundred dollars left. The music, recitation by Miss Fuller, and the 'Original Tom Thumb Family' gave life and enjoyment to the occasion."
Meanwhile Louie was busily rehearsing for a play, Ten Nights in a Bar Room. The Monmouth Dramatic Club and Literary Association planned to present it at Union Hall and donate the net proceeds to the Monmouth Temperance Reform Club.
Temperance agitation in Illinois had reached a peak. A recent state law made liquor dealers liable for injury or damage caused by an intoxicated person to whom they had sold drinks. German brewers and Irish saloonkeepers demanded repeal of the measure while the antidrink people, mainly native Protestants, agitated for an even stricter law, one that would bring about statewide prohibition. Many of the evangelical clergy, though they looked askance at ordinary playacting, were more than willing to endorse a temperance drama such as Ten Nights in a Bar Room.
For more than twenty years this play had been a favorite for amateur theatricals throughout the North. It was a tearjerker with a lurid plot, in which the local saloon dooms a whole town to sorrow and despair. Night after night the angelic Mary Morgan bravely appears among the drunkards in the barroom to make her touching appeal: "Father, dear father, come home with me now!" This choice role of Mary Morgan was Louie's. Unfortunately, when the day came for the one and only performance, she was indisposed and an understudy had to take her place.
Disappointed though she was, Louie managed to salvage something from her part in the play. It inspired her to speak out against the evils of drink. Regarding her presentation in the nearby village of Kirkwood, the Monmouth Weekly Review reported on May 21, 1875: "Miss Louie Fuller, of Monmouth (aged 13), delivered a lecture on temperance, in Columbian Hall, on Saturday evening, to a slim house. It was pronounced good by all who heard it."
Louie gained further recognition when the Prince Imperial Club held its second annual masquerade ball on Christmas Eve. About fifty masked couples had gathered in Union Hall when, at nine o'clock, the band struck up the grand march. Before the judging of the costumes, the crowd heard and applauded a "fine concert" by "the famed 'Tennesseans,' a band of colored jubilee singers," who were on their way to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Tennesseans may or may not have been pleased to see some of the masqueraders in blackface, representing a "Plantation Darkee with Pickaninny," "Two African Ladies," and "Two Orphans (colored)." None of these contestants won the prize, and neither did Louie, who was dressed as a "Fairy." "The $10 gold coin prize, for the best impersonation of characters, was awarded to Miss Lottie Schultz, who appeared as Mother Goose."
Louie's moment came after the unmasking, when the waltz contest was held. She and her dancing partner, Perceval Brewer, had to compete with the grownups but nevertheless came away with the grand prize, "youth proving too much for the 'old folks.'" In retrospect she wrote: "I gain the prize for waltzing & fall in love at the same time."
It was no wonder that Louie could dance so well. Not only was she blessed with natural grace and a sense of rhythm, but she also had the benefit of instruction from a terpsichorean expert, her father. "Mr. R. Fuller has opened the 'Monmouth Dancing Academy' in Wallace's Hall," the Monmouth Daily Review announced on January 14, 1876. "Mr. Fuller himself is an accomplished dancer, thoroughly acquainted with the principles of the art, and skilled in imparting to his pupils that graceful habit of body and ease of movement so essential to the complete enjoyment of this delightful accomplished art." The Academy started with a class of twenty of "the finest young men of the city," who were to meet twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday nights.
The National Hotel and the Dancing Academy did not hold Reuben Fuller in Monmouth very long. After a two-year stay he sold the hotel and took his family back across the state to Westville, a smaller town located near the Indiana line about 150 miles south of Chicago. His daughter wrote down few recollections of this phase of her life, but she seems to have had pleasant memories of it, as indicated by the summary she once made: "We move to Westville. The pretty lady. The church and the paper says she is 14 or 16a question anxiously asked by the young men!"
After living a year in Westville, the Fullers returned to Chicago. Reuben now had no occupation (none, at any rate, that was listed with his name in the city directory). Delilah provided for the family by operating a notions store, where Frank was employed as a clerk. Bert was still going to school. And Louie, in the turmoil of adolescence, was trying to find herself and her career.
Stagestruck, the teenager started out by accepting whatever bit parts she could find in one theater or another in Chicago. Opportunities for performers, high and low, were multiplying throughout the country as both the legitimate theater and the variety show expanded in response to an increasing demand for commercial entertainment. The opportunities for Loie Fuller, as she began to call herself, were limited mostly to melodrama, farce, and burlesque (not girlie shows but parodies of serious drama), in which her role was usually that of an ingenue, a soubrette, or a boy. Still, in the course of a decade, she managed to reach Broadway and attain at least a certain degree of stardom on the American stage.
When only fifteen, Loie reportedly joined the Felix A. Vincent Comedy Company in Chicago and went on a nine-month tour with it. Other roles followed. "I play a part with three words & it leads to an engagement when I learn that I must be prepared for theatrical intrigue & I get my chance when critics pronounce me a coming star." Then "I join Frank Mayo's Company at a moment's notice and make a hit without knowing it." That, at any rate, was the way she liked to remember her early years on the professional stage.
Actually, she was nineteen when she got her first chance at something more than a very minor role. William F. Codythe frontier scout and war veteran popularly known as Buffalo Billhad arrived in Chicago to present a "soul-stirring, blood-curdling drama," The Prairie Waif, for one week at the Olympic Theatre. There was more to the program than merely this gripping play. There was also "an exhibition of Fancy Rifle Shooting" by Buffalo Bill himself, and there were "wild and weird Songs and Dances" by four Winnebago chiefs, a Pawnee chief, and an Indian maiden whose tribal affiliation was not disclosed.
"The lady who played the part of the Waif, in Chicago, was not particularly friendly to [Jule] Keen, who, at that time, was the stage manager," a friend of Keen's related. At one matinee the actress did not arrive until the end of the first act, in which she was supposed to appear. "She came in with a sweep and a flashy eye and exclaimed, 'What is going on here? How dared you raise that curtain without my being here?'" The stage manager was not well impressed, and apparently he fired the haughty thespian, or she quit.
In either case, here was an opening for Loie. She had to strum the banjo but learned to do so easily enough and, just as easily, memorized the lines of the waif. Then she went on tour with the Buffalo Bill troupe, which traveled as far east as Brooklyn. There, at the Grand Opera House, they appeared in January 1882. By this time the play had been changed to Twenty Days, or Buffalo Bill's Pledge, but Loie's role was pretty much the same as before: she was now Miss Pepper, "a conventional crusher and deserted waif." Before she had quite finished the season with Buffalo Bill, she cam down with a light case of the smallpox and had to leave the show.
It was a few years before she got another part as good as that of the waif. According to her recollections, she meanwhile toured Illinois in a farce that she had written and had titled Larks. For a couple of years she took voice lessons from the music editor of the Chicago Tribune, making her first public appearance as a singer in the chorus at a Chicago summer music festival. She apparently traveled for a time with her own musical group. Almost a half century later she reminded Julius Witmark: "when you were a very young boy, with a beautiful head of black, curly hair, and a voice like an angel, you sang in my concert company and went with me throughout America." Witmark, born in 1870, a popular boy soprano, became a partner in the firm of M. Witmark & Sons, the nation's largest publisher of sheet music.
The young Loie dreamed of becoming an opera star.
At 18 years of age she could sing all right, but was living in dire poverty, managing to indulge in one meal a day, and that one sometimes not more than a crust of bread. She was anxious to go into opera, but managers laughed when the half-starved, ill-clad girl walked into their offices and asked for an engagement.
At last ... she read in the Chicago papers that Murray and Murphy were playing in a farce, called "Our Irish Visitors," at Hooley's Opera House, under the management of J. M. Hill.
Miss Fuller, with a roll of music under her arm, haunted Hooley's Theatre for several days before she managed to corral "Jim" Hill. The day she did a rehearsal was going on and Hill was mad. The play was going all wrong, the lack of singing material being the main cause. Hill ... looked up crossly as the young girl entered.
"What do you want?" he said gruffly.
"I want an appointment," was the prompt reply.
Hill looked curiously at the diminutive figure in front of him. He saw a girl with a shock of blonde hair, hollow checked and with dark circles around the eyes and miserably clad. His sympathies were aroused in a moment.
no money and marries him for his presumed status. Dominating the proceedings was a comedian named Roland Reed, who was noted for his "picturesque grimaces" and his "vocal squeals." From time to time he interrupted the play to introduce songs. "In a medley of airs from 'The Mikado' Mr. Reed was assisted by a Miss Fuller, who is better as a songstress than as an actress," the New York Times commented. "She has yet to learn the value of repose and the meaning of gesture and facial expression. But she has been taught to sing, and she has a fairly good voice." Humbug ran for six weeks, closing on August 14, 1886.
No matter what the critics thought of her performance in that play, Loie had done well enough to gain the attention and approval of Nat C. Goodwin, one of the greatest comic actors of the period, a master of burlesque. "That is burlesque," the Times explained,"to imitate a serious work, and in imitating it to make it ridiculous, and it is in the accomplishment of that not very lofty purpose that Mr. Goodwin is pre-eminent upon our stage today." After going to London and buying the rights to four plays that had succeeded there, Goodwin sold the rights to three of them to help finance the production of the fourth, Little Jack Sheppard, at the Bijou, where it opened on September 13, 1886. This "grotesque caricature of melodrama" contained very little narrative but an abundance of rollicking music, rhyming dialogue, and far-fetched puns. Goodwin had chosen Loie for the title role, the central character of Jack.
Loie, as Jack, got contradictory reviews in the New York press. The Daily Mirror sourly reported
We regret we cannot commend the management's choice of Loie Fuller for the title role. Miss Fuller evinced improvement, it is true, but she has not the vivacity or the peculiar accomplishments that go to make up a successful performer in this line of work. Her Cockney accent was such only in the dropping of h's; in all other respects it savored of interior New England. Miss Fuller sings prettily, but she cannot dance, and therein does she vastly fall short of such a role.
The Times, while noting that it was Goodwin who attracted people to the theater, gave Loie a very complimentary report:
The scene in which young Jack is supposed to cut the letters of his name upon the wall of his prison while he mournfully sings ... possesses exactly the spirit that true burlesque should have, because it reflects the meaning of the original and puts it in a comic light. Miss Loie Fuller, as the hero of the piece, does this little bit very neatly, and indeed Miss Fuller's impersonation is very commendable throughout the play. She looks like a boy, as few women do in breeches, and she acts like one, which is still less frequently accomplished.
One evening a newspaper editor and his wife took their six-year-old daughter with them to see Little Jack Sheppard. The girl wanted to meet Jack, so her father arranged to introduce her to Loie. "I had succeeded so perfectly in taking a boy's part," Loie remembered, "that the little girl could not believe but that I really was one, and when she had been presented to me, she asked: 'Well, why does Jack wear girl's clothes?'" Loie succeeded in the illusion despite her physique, which was not boyish in the least. Small though she was, she had a fully rounded female figure.
Little Jack Sheppard ran for three months, until attendance drastically declined. To provide something else at the Bijou, Goodwin bought back one of the other burlesques he had imported from EnglandTurned Upwhich he recently had sold for five hundred dollars and for which he now was compelled to pay one thousand dollars plus 10 percent of the gross receipts. This play, opening in December 1886, was billed as a "New and Original Melo-dramatic Farcical Comedy," and in it Loie again was given an important role. "We thought we were in for a run of at least one season and maybe two," Goodwin recalled. But, much to his and Loie's surprise, the managers of the Bijou very soon decided that the play, if not actually losing money, was making too little profit.
To replace Turned Up, Goodwin was offered Big Pony, with a libretto by A. C. Wheeler, a New York dramatic critic, and music by Woolson Morse, "a very clever composer." Goodwin wanted to revise and update the second of the three acts. "The dialogue referred to political issues that were long since dead. Wheeler insisted that the play should be performed as he had written it." So, accepting the manuscript as it was, Goodwin went ahead and, at the Bijou in March 1887, lavishly presented "the first production on any stage of the Original American Comic Opera"Big Ponywith "Indians, Cowboys, Mexicans, Monks, Spanish Girls, Squaws, Bucks, Soldiers, etc." Loie was one of the Spanish Girls, Senorita Marie. She and the rest of these people were lively enough, but not Goodwin with his prescribed dialogue. "I was compelled to deliver funny lines which I knew were funereal," he lamented; "the second act was so terrible that the play proved an unmitigated failure." After a few weeks Goodwin revived Little Jack Sheppard and took it on tour, with Loie again playing the part of Jack.
Loie next performed in Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp, at the Standard Theatre in New York in the fall of 1887. According to its promoters, this extravaganza offered the most spectacular lighting effects in the history of the American theater. There had been dazzling spectacles before; in the long-running favorite The Black Crook, for example, a fountain took on all the colors of the rainbow when light was projected on the water through a prism. But Aladdin, with its magical transformations, was even more impressively staged. In one of the transformations, while scenery was being changed, colored lights played on a curtain of steam. In another the stage appeared to be "filled with elephants and beautiful girls lying among sunrise clouds, with yellow, buff, gold, and silver blending in a rich harmony of color."
Again a male impersonator, Loie, as Aladdin, rubbed the magic lamp to bring about the miraculous changes of scenery. She did not look like a boy this time. While one critic mentioned her among the "clever people" in the cast, another declared that "Loie Fuller's shapely form" was one of the "extra features of the production." No doubt the experience contributed to her future success, since it provided lessons she could use for her subsequent career as an innovator in lighting effects.
Before coming to New York, Aladdin had enjoyed the longest run in the history of the Chicago stage. Scenes were added and the cast was enlarged for the New York audience, and at the Standard Theatre the revised play opened to a sizable enthusiastic house. But it lasted there for less than a month, then played in Brooklyn for only a week.
Loie's next engagement, beginning on November 29, 1887, at Niblo's Garden in New York, also proved to be more of a learning experience than a theatrical triumph for her. She had secured a part in She, another spectacular, which was based on H. Rider Haggard's grotesque novel about the two-thousand-year-old woman Ayesha. "There is nothing in his books to inspire a dramatist," the New York Times remarked, "but there is plenty of material in them to tempt the mere playwright, the painter of scenery, the inventor of 'transformations,' the costumer, and the gasman." (The "gasman" had charge of the gaslights in a theater.) As staged, She displayed lighting effects almost as amazing as those in Aladdin. There was, for example, a storm with thunder and lightning and "a vast rolling sea, breaking clouds, a lurid sunset." There was also a "cave of the sacred fire of life," where the beauteous Ayesha twice "goes into the flame" and emerges the second time as a "wrinkled hag of hideous aspect."
In these goings-on Loie had a relatively unimportant part. She later joked that "she used to roll, bumpety-bump, down the steps of the property pyramid. She was given the role, not for any special histrionic ability, but because she was willing to fall farther and harder for a $10 stipend than any other member of the company." When she told that story, she was forgetting that one critic had said she played her part "earnestly and with abundant dramatic intelligence." To be sure, another observer complained that Loie and the rest of the cast "lacked, collectively, that glitter which compels a playgoer to hurry to the theatre to be enchanted by actors' efforts."
She remained at Niblo's for four weeks and then went on the road. Loie now had a chance to go bumpety-bump down the steps in Chicago, where she had done much the same thing in her precocious stage debut more than twenty years earlier.
When Loie played in Chicago, her mother and father went along with her and visited friends and relatives in Fullersburg. Her parents accompanied her on other trips, too. "Pa & Ma are both here with me," she wrote from Boston, May 31, 1887, to her cousin Eunice L. Rogers in Illinois. "Pa just returned from a trip to Binghamton [in his native New York, where some of his family still lived]. Had a nice time. But doesn't say anything about it." Loie was repaying her cousin, in $10 installments, for a $50 loan. Already she was demonstrating a talent that, along with her theatrical one, was to grow tremendously with the yearsa talent for going into debt.
Despite the unsuccessful plays in which she had a part, Loie had attained at least a modest standing in the American theater by 1888, when she was twenty-six. She had been invited to perform in numerous benefits in New York and Boston, and she gave gladly and generously of her time to these charitable events. While doing so, she shared the stage with some of the best-known actors and actresses of the period, among them not only Nat Goodwin but also Lillian Russell and Steele MacKaye. But the career that made her world-famous was yet to begin.
Table of Contents
|1 From "Louie" to "Loie"||3|
|2 The Serpent and the Serpentine||23|
|3 Extraordinary Success, Extraordinary Failure||45|
|4 Why Can't I Be Salome?||71|
|5 The Mistress of Fire||93|
|6 A Theater of Her Own||119|
|7 Sada, Isadora, Marie, the Curies, Rodin||145|
|8 Wanderers in Glory||167|
|9 La Loie and Her Muses||193|
|10 Little Loie and Big Alma||221|
|11 More Missions to America||245|
|12 The Lily of Life||267|
|13 Light and Shadow||291|
|14 The Dying of the Light||309|