Category Archives: Entertainment

Music hall, cabaret, dance hall

Arabella Fields – The Black Nightingale

Sheet Music, photo of Arabella Fields (Partions musicales, www.imagesmusicales.be)
Nach Zigeuner Art! music by Th. Wottitz, published by Josef Blaha in Vienna, 1910 – Photo of Arabella Fields.

Arabella (or Belle) Fields was an early Afro-American performer in Europe. From the 1890s to the 1920s she toured as The Black Nightingale. She was born in Philadelphia but added to her mystique by presenting herself alternately as an African, Red Indian, Indian, American, South American, German-African or an Australian. On this Austrian sheet music cover she presents herself as The Australian Nightingale. The song ‘Nach Zigeuner Art’ (In Gypsy Style) was her greatest success.

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Arabella Fields, an exotic sight to her German audience, was also known to perform as the South-American Caruso. She had a beautiful contralto singing voice and was recorded prior to the First World War in Berlin. Max Chop, a contemporary music critic, described her voice like this: ‘On top of this month’s record list is a vocal phenomenon which remains a mystery to me. I would have classified her straight away as a regular tenor with baritonal colouring, had not the label informed me that it is actually the contralto of Miss Belle Fields, a coloured lady from Philadelphia. I listened to the songs again and again. Indeed at certain times, during the piano of the falsetto towards the upper notes, I thought I heard something like a female resemblance. But then again there were the deep tones of the small octave, and then my natural response was again and again: “But it ought to be a male, after all’!’
You can decide for yourself on Arabella’s voice quality by listening to this 1907 recording of Because I love you

Arabella Fields lived in Germany. She always opened her concerts with a few English songs, soon switching to her German repertoire. This amazed and revelled her audience. Contemporary reviews make it clear that she was much admired. Perhaps this success was due to the fact that Belle Fields adapted Tyrolean folklore. She even yodelled and she dressed accordingly in a dirndl, a historical dress of Alpine peasants.

Arabella Fields
Arabella Fields in Tirolean attire.

She was not the only Afro-American artist to adapt the Tyrolean style: the Four Black Diamonds dressed up in Lederhosen or leather shorts.

The Four Black Diamonds, 1906
The Four Black Diamonds, 1906

Next to singing, Arabella Fields acted in a few silent movies and at least in one sound film, Baroud (1933). This was the first and last talkie by the renowned director Rex Ingram. Arabella Fields plays the role of Mabrouka, the heroine’s servant. As was the custom then, she was stereotyped as an overweight, sharp-tongued, black mammy (a racist stereotype featured in a previous post).

The Mammy Stereotype

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The sheet music for Coal-Black Mammy (Francis, Day and Hunter, London, 1921).
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The cast of the Co-Optmists revue at the Palace Theatre of London. Author Laddie Cliff stands third from the right.

Coal-Black Mammy was written by comedian Laddie Cliff and composed by actress and singer Ivy St. Hellier in 1921. Although the author was born in Bristol (UK), he adapted the American South’s archetypical Mammy for the successful ‘Co-Optimists’ London revue.

A photograph of author Laddie Cliff when young, and the obituary in the Glasgow Herald
A photograph of author Laddie Cliff when young, and his obituary in the Glasgow Herald of 1937.

The Co-Optimists revue combined in its name two political keywords of the time, optimism and co-operation.  It was a sequence of short sketches, performed by musical comedy and variety artists dressed in pierrot costumes. The show ran for six years at the London Palace Theatre and went on tour along British seaside resorts.

View of the Palace Theatre across Cambridge Circus, London, 1910
View of the Palace Theatre across Cambridge Circus, London, 1910

In 1929 it was made into a film, co-directed by Laddie Cliff. A filmed extract from the stage musical brings the photo on the sheet music cover literally to life.

Salabert published Coal-Black Mammy in France and Roger de Valerio illustrated its cover. Mammy characters were a staple of minstrel shows, so they were certainly known in Europe at that time.

Partition illustrée par R. de Valerio
‘Coal-Black Mammy’, illustrated by Roger de Valerio (Francis Salabert, Paris, 1921)

But, in picturing the mother with her own baby de Valerio proves that he did not correctly grasp the Southern archetypical meaning of the Black Mammy. Unlike the happy mother on the cover, she did not have time to care for her own children. The Mammy in these shows and comedies is a racist stereotype: usually an overweight, large-breasted, maternal woman. Moreover she is a neat and clean, domestic, non threatening to white people, and always busy attending to the needs of the master’s children. She is the one person on whom all (white people) depend when in need.

American illustrator Dorothy Dullin on the other hand, understood perfectly well how to draw a Mammy for the cover of the 1922 song Carolina Mammy: the Mammy is nurturing a white boy.

‘Carolina Mammy’, cover illustrated by Dorothy Dullin (Publications Francis-Day, Paris, 1922).

The two songs mentioned above were also performed by black face par excellence, Al Jolson. In 1927 Walter Donaldson composed the ultimate Mammy song for the film The Jazz Singer: My Mammy. The song became a classic in Al Jolson’s version. For the French edition of the song the illustrator Deléage made a strong caricature of Al Jolson’s black face character.

‘My Mammy’, sheet music cover illustrated by L. R. Deléage (Publications Raoul Breton, Paris, 1929).

The persistent Mammy stereotype extended well into the twentieth century in literature, films and TV series. In the cartoon Scrub me Mamma with a Boogie Beat from 1941, we see another archetypical image of the Black Mammy, kerchief on her head. Of course the entire cartoon is the epitome of stereotyping: black men living in Lazytown, doing nothing else than, well… being lazy. It is only when a sexy light-skinned woman appears, that they jump into action  to dance and play their instruments.

Or to say it with a good old sheet music cover…

Lazin', Sheet music (Lazin', partition illustrée)
‘Lazin’, composed by Charles Tovey (illustrator unknown, Lawrence Wright, London, 1934).

 

The Dolly Sisters: Art Deco gold diggers

Gold Diggers illustrated by Boullaire
Gold Diggers illustrated by Boullaire

Gold Diggers is an appropriate title for the fox trot danced by the Dolly Sisters. They surely knew something about gold digging, not as in ‘gold mining in Klondike’ but as in sweet-talking sugar daddies. The Dolly Sisters were hot during the jazz age and everybody wanted to be seen with them, even royalty.

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The Dolly Sisters in their flamboyant costumes

Jenny and Rosie Deutsch had immigrated from their native Hungary to America where they began performing on stage at an early age. They were identical twins and they accentuated this by synchronising their movements and by wearing identical costumes. The Dolly Sisters soon became famous both in Europe and in the States. They had a penchant for plumes, jewellery, money, and older men but above all for gambling.

dollies gypsy
The Dolly Sisters in gypsy costume.

The best known of their sugar daddies was Harry Selfridge, who founded the first ‘shopping is fun’ department store in Oxford Street, London: Selfridges. In his later life he became so besotted by the Dolly Sisters that he catered for their every wish. He bought them diamonds, flew over their favourite food and sat next to them at the gambling table, his wallet wide open. This would eventually hasten the downfall of Harry Selfridge: he lost his entire fortune and his beloved department store.

The Dolly Sisters’ exuberant partying lifestyle came abruptly to an end when Jenny was injured in a car accident. She never recovered from it and sadly hanged herself in 1941. Rosie retired from public life and also tried to take her own live. She passed away in 1977.

The Dolly Sisters were wildly famous during their heyday, but it was not an enduring fame. Now this is interesting. We still know Greta Garbo, Maurice Chevalier or Charlie Chaplin, but not the Dolly Sisters. Maybe long-lasting fame has to do with persistence and talent. The Dolly Sisters’ career span was rather short. As for their talent we can get a glimpse of that in a recently published YouTube fragment. They are performing in a pantomime of a traditional children’s tale Babes in the Woods, although not in their usual identical costumes.

In an iconographic way the Dolly Sisters simply breathed Art Deco. Their ornate costumes and lavish acts are the quintessential image of the Roaring Twenties as can be seen in some of our Dolly Sisters sheet music covers.

Dolly Sisters, illustrated by de Valerio
Dolly Sisters, illustrated by de Valerio
Charleston Dolly, illustrated by Jack Roberts
Charleston Dolly, illustrated by Jack Roberts
dolly sisters maurice chevalier
Three covers illustrated by Loris with Maurice Chevalier between Jenny and Rosie.

Furthermore statuettes, porcelain figurines and boudoir dolls accompanied the Dolly Sisters’ rage and success. In 2012 a bronze and ivory statuette of the twins by Chiparus sold for almost 350.000 € .

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Large bronze and ivory statuette of the Dolly Sisters, by Demetre Chiparus
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Goldscheider figure group, the Dolly Sisters, 1925

 

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Boudoir dolls of the Dolly Sisters, courtesy of Frau Wulf, http://frauwulf.blogspot.be

The twins also inspired László Moholy-Nagy for his modernist photomontage Olly & Dolly Sisters. Moholy-Nagy transforms their normally cheerful disposition by a vast emptiness using light, monochromatic colours and simple geometric shapes.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy olly & dolly sisters
Olly & Dolly Sisters by László Moholy-Nagy, circa 1925, Gelatin silver print (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)