Wednesday, September 09, 2009
The name is enough, isn’t it? We all have our rich memories. He is ours for his eccentric aerial ballets and for his wild sense of humor. Theirs, meaning the French, for his gender-bending illusions on a single trapeze that wowed them. When at the end of “her act,” he with a flourish threw his true identity to the crowd, they cheered. And adored. And loved. Among his many friends and admirers, there was legendary Russian ballet impresario serge Diaghilev.
Born Vander Clyde, he never received the book that is due him. His career flew high over Europe, and then he fell, and the fall grounded him for good. He grew up in, of all places, Round Rock Texas, future home of pc giant Dell. Soon he was abroad making a name for himself.
Avant garde artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in 1923 wrote this in a letter to Belgian friend and critic, Paul Collear, “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 ... one of the most beautiful things in theatre. Stravinsky, Auric, poets, painters, and I myself have seen no comparable display of artistry on the stage since Nijinsky... a theatrical masterpiece. An angel, a flower, a bird.”
Barbette's persona would influence a number of other leading artists, as well, among them, Alfred Hitchcock, who based a character in his 1930 film, Murder!, on the flamboyant aerialist from Texas.
I am proud to say that, if for no other reason than Dale Longmire, I composed a chapter on Barbette titled “The Entrepreneur of Enchantment” in my first book, Behind the Big Top. One evening after a performance of Circus Vargas, somehow I had heard that Dale wanted me to sign his copy of the book. Inside his trailer, he told me how much he valued the chapter on his idol, that he had read it many times over. That made my season.
Cocteau, who cast Barbette in his 1930 film Blood of the Poet (placing him as a woman sitting in a theatre box), likened his idol to “a cloud of dust thrown into the eyes of the audience” The two shared a bed during an affair as short lived as a cloud of dust.
Years later, back in America, that "cloud of dust" was more like a slender stalk of aging elegance. Barbette was now "directing" circuses, to the rather limited extent possible at the time. After suffering a fall in the mid-thirties that ended his trapeze career abroad, he returned to the states. John Ringling North hired him to stage aerial production numbers. This led to work on other shows as well, from Cole Bros. to Polack. I've heard about an exciting elephant long mount that allegedly opened a Cole Bros. show when Barbette was directing it.
I am charmed with a feeling that Barbette achieved his finest work creating and staging the Polack Bros. shows which I saw during the mid-1950s when its hands-off owner Louis Stern evidently gave him ample funds and generous latitude. There, he evidently had more power to shape an entire show. Tis a shame that North never gave Barbette such a chance on his own Greatest Show on Earth. Ken Dodd raves about Barbette's Monte Carlo aerial ballet for Ringling in 1948. Significantly, the finale on Ringling-Barnum during its last under canvas season in 1956, “Hoop Do Doo” was at least partially directed by Barbette.
I knew this eccentric wonder close up, first as a kid hardly in his teens when Polack Bros. came to Santa Rosa. How could you not notice him? The way he dressed, high sweaters to conceal unflattering lines. The way he walked — ballet master hovering over every detail. One evening before the show while watching him fuss over the lights,I approached the director and blurted out, “What is it like working on the Ringling circus?”
With a blase world-weary sigh, answered Barbette, “Oh, it’s like a sex holiday.”
Funny, as out of place as the remark might seem, in a sense Barbette was addressing me as a full fledged adult. Our encounter did not go beyond that. Whether it was a trial proposition (there were those rumors), I do not know.
In the late 1960s, I met up with him again when he was back on the now budget-strapped Polack show. Barbette had scarcely the personnel or production effects to sustain his reputation. Either he asked me or I volunteered to drive him to a hardware store. He needed something, and, there, he never found whatever it was he needed. I drove him back to the Oakland auditorium. The show was a pale shadow of its heydays years in the fifties. When I took in a performance over in San Francisco, a cheap looking motor Barbette was using to lift some rigging for one of his productions malfunctioned. Barbette's “Aerialovelies” were grounded. I felt both amused and sad.
A few years later, plagued by ill health, one of Spangleland’s most fantastic personalities self-directed his own final exit.
Old time 24-hour man Bill Strong, I’ve belatedly discovered, gave Barbette a wonderful panorama of photographic attention on his blog, Yesterday’s Towns. On the internet, bit by bit, we are learning more about this colorful big top great. Some of the information for this post was gleaned from the the following website:
To end our little tribute, here is more of what Jean Cocteau wrote about the object of his artistic and personal infatuation:
Barbette “plays a part of a man. He rolls his shoulder, stretches his hands, swells his muscles... And after the fifteenth or sixteenth curtain call, he gives a mischievous wink, shifts from foot to foot, mimes a bit of an apology, and does a shuffling street urchin dance – all of it to erase the fabulous, dying-swan impression left by the act.”
[photos, from top: Barbette; in his single trapeze costume disguise; As circus director in America; Two of his Polack Bros. 1953 productions: the Carnival in Spangleland ballet and This Way to the Side Show opener]
First posted September 9, 2009