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Tradition of the Gypsy Robe
It's one hour before the curtain rises on a new Broadway musical and the streets of the theatre district are relatively calm. Most theatre-goers are tucked away in corner tables of area bistros. Some wait in a stream of yellow cabs on one of the city's clogged arteries leading to Times Square. The hustle and bustle of getting to the theatre before 8 pm is impending; for now, only a few stray tourists, an overworked professional or two, and several resident street walkers pass in front of one theatre that looms over the rest of Broadway's houses, a theatre glowing with the electricity of opening night.
Entrances to the theatre, which will soon welcome audiences with open doors attended by red-clad ushers, are locked. All is quiet. Suddenly there is movement inside beyond the orchestra pit, behind the curtain. It's the shuffle of feet making their way onstage, the sound of varied voices whispering in expectancy. They enter from the wings, not solely performers rechecking their marks or quickly rehearsing a combination to ease charged nerves. Stage manager, techies, the complete behind-the-scenes crew, as well as the complete cast, from star to chorus member, all assemble onstage. They have met for one purpose - not to discuss last-minute changes, but to perform a Great White Way ritual. The ritual of the Gypsy Robe.
The ritual begins appropriately, with a cue from the stage manager: "On stage for the Gypsy Robe." All members of the production - some already in make-up and costume - take a place forming a circle on the fringes of the stage. In the center of the circle stand two people; one is a representative of Actors' Equity, the other, a performer, an honored gypsy, from the previous musical that opened on Broadway. The Equity rep may begin by retelling a history of the ritual, while the performer holds the lavishly decorated robe, a mosaic comprised of sewn remembrances, perhaps recognizable logos, of musicals that have already opened on Broadway. Those on the fringe listen and watch; for some this is their first experience; for others, it is a ritual they have participated in many times before as they listen anxiously in the event they will be the night's honoree.
The robe is, in some ways, the performer's "amazing technicolor dreamcoat." The gypsy, although a breed of performer not easily categorized, is usually a chorus member known in part for his or her dedication, professionalism and seasoned performing career. The recipient of the robe is a member of the cast who embodies the qualities of the Broadway gypsy, and has appeared in the most Broadway shows (i.e., the most Broadway chorus credits). Everyone can guess at who the honoree will be, but no one knows until a name is announced by the former recipient.
Lee Wilson, for instance, was the name announced on the opening night of "Meet me in St. Louis." She was presented the robe from gypsy Dana Moore, who received it on the opening night of "Dangerous Games."
" When my name was announced I went into the center of the circle and put on the robe," Wilson remembers. "Then I circled the stage counter-clockwise three times and everyone touched the robe for luck. When everyone went back to their dressing rooms, I went around knocking on each door. Then they would let me into the dressing rooms, which is also meant to bring luck. Of course, everyone's charged. The dressing rooms are filled with candy and flowers and toys…it's really an emotional release. You feel you've already done something even though you haven't performed yet."
The ritual is completed. A new King or Queen of the Broadway gypsies has been named. The crew returns to their stations backstage, and members of the cast make last minute preparations in their dressing rooms. Everyone hopes that the Gypsy Robe has worked its charm and opening night will be a success.
But when the audience members have taken their coveted seats, a crescendo is heard from the orchestra, and the curtain rises the Gypsy Robe remains backstage while the performer it honors takes his or her place in the ranks of the chorus. The evening's honored gypsy takes no special curtain call, and the chances are the audience will file out of the theatre after the performance never knowing who the newly-robed King or Queen is. That, after all, is part of what it means to be a gypsy.
The gypsy, as any generation of gypsies will tell you, is first and foremost a performer, the performers' performer. They, like their namesakes, are considered a mystical, nomadic tribe of people who know what it takes to survive. Although there are no written requirements to "gypsyhood," no laws written in stone as to who is or is not a gypsy, there are some unspoken understandings of what it takes to qualify.
It's called "paying your dues" in show biz lingo, as robe-recipient Wilson explains: "I was in four Broadway shows my first year in the business. I had a lot of credits very fast, but still I was a baby. It takes both time and a lot of shows to be a real gypsy."
"A gypsy never gives up," says Albertina Horstmann, who appeared on Broadway in "Lady Says Yes," and "Marinka," and worked with choreographers like Agnes De Mille and Hanya Holm. "You just go and go and go, playing different towns, going from show to show…in the summer doing summer stock…always ready to pack at a moment's notice."
Gypsies are clearly adaptable creatures; throw them into any environment and they will get the job done, no matter what the obstacles, all for the sake of getting a chance to perform. Of course, they are the champions of the motto "the show must go on"; they are able to withstand true tests of the survival of the fittest, which in show business can add up to harrowing tales ranging from injury to poverty. "Gypsies should really be noted for their ability to think on their feet, or handle problems," Wilson points out. "When we were doing 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' one of the seasoned performers noticed that a trap door in the middle of the stage wasn't working. It happened when the stage went dark, and the little girl who played Tutti was supposed to run across the stage. I was watching in the wings, getting the chills at what might happen. Well, this performer just planted himself over the trap door. It was wonderful how protective he was."
Who are the gypsies? The martyrs. The troopers. The workhorses who don't always get the recognition, or the dressing rooms with the stars on them. The diverse range of performers who are celebrated in "A Chorus Line," whose anthem (ask any gypsy) can be "What I Did For Love."
"Gypsies are the people who take every opportunity to perform," says Phyllis French, a gypsy who made her rounds on Broadway in the 50s, "not just because they have to pay the bills, but for the love of it. I always loved dancing ever since I can remember. The music and the feeling of dance is just so beautiful."
The love, pride, and shared experience of performing is in the blood of all gypsies; the bond that ultimately links them together as performers. Horstmann describes the sound of an orchestra starting a show, "a thrill that the ordinary person never really experiences."
"You know people from auditions and shows," she says. "And you are all in the same boat. You're going for a common goal…when you go out for nine months doing a show, the cast becomes your family. The sad part is when the run is over.
Dancer Joanne McHugh recently experienced the break-up of her performing family when "Meet Me in St. Louis" closed: "We all knew that at some point the show was going to close, but we didn't want to think about it. It turned out to be a really sad show for us…Most of the cast lives in New York City, but our relationships will never be the same. Some of us shared our first Broadway show. It's hard to get that back…"
But, McHugh adds, "What is exciting is that we all knew that with the closing of the show we were forced to move on to another show…"
And that, after all, is what a gypsy is all about.
(Excerpted from "SHOW BUSINESS" JULY 25, 1990 by Leanne Boepple)
History of the Robe
The ritual of the Gypsy Robe takes place on the stage of every Broadway musical on opening night, before the audience is admitted. It began in 1950 when Bill Bradley, in the chorus of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, persuaded a chorus girl to let him have her dressing gown. As a lark, he sent it to a friend on opening night of CALL ME MADAM, telling him it had been worn by all the Ziegfeld beauties. The friend added a rose from Ethel Merman's gown and sent it to a chorus member on the next opening night. It was then passed from show to show in a haphazard way and was often presented to a friend of the previous recipient, or awarded to a chorus member based on popularity. Through the years the passing of the Robe became a specific ceremony with official rules stating how it is presented, worn and paraded on stage.
When Robes are completely covered with artifacts, souvenirs and sketches, they are retired and a new one started. Three retired Robes are at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing arts; two are in the Smithsonian; and all others are with Actors' Equity.
In April 2002, three gypsy robes were donated to the Museum of the City of New York.
The supervision and guardianship of the Robes is under the auspices of the Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs (ACCA), and former AEA staff member Terry Marone is the "guardian angel" of the Robes. Gloria Rosenthal is the Gypsy Robe historian.
The Rules- The Rules of the Gypsy Robe - What Every Gypsy Needs to Know
The Gypsy Robe blesses every Broadway musical! Please keep the tradition and stick to the rules. Let's not lose what is ours alone.
- The Gypsy Robe goes only to Broadway musicals with a chorus.
- Robe goes to chorus member only, with most number of Broadway shows.
- It must be delivered by 1/2 hour on Opening Night to member selected.
- New member must put on Robe and circle the stage 3 times, while cast members reach out and touch Robe for good luck; new member visits each dressing room while wearing the Robe.
- New member adds memento from show to Robe. Important rules for adding mementos: For wear-a-bility, durability and longevity, add-ons must be lightweight, sturdy and reasonably sized so each Robe can represent about 20 shows. Excessively heavy items will have to be removed; extremely fragile items will not last.
- Opening night date is written on or near memento and cast members only sign that section of Robe.
- New member must determine when next Broadway musical is opening (contact Terry Marone of AEA); find cast member who is "The Gypsy" in that show and be responsible for delivering the Robe on opening night, making sure all rules are followed.