Thursday, March 21, 2013

Keeping It in the Family: A History of Families Performing on Our Stage

Families come first at The New Victory Theater, and we don’t mean just in the audience. While Bello Nock may be the star of Bello Mania, the female performer in the show is none other than his own daughter, Annalise. Neither of them would be able to show off their skills without Bello’s wife, Jennifer Nock—who wrote and directed the show—and the backstage support of their second daughter, Amariah. Bello himself is a seventh-generation circus performer and traces his lineage back to the founders of Switzerland's Circus Nock in the 18th century. But the Nocks aren’t the first family to tread our boardsin fact, they’re not even the first this season! 

Two of the performers in Circolombia’s Urban, Angel and Jose Jenry, are brothers. The company’s artistic director, Felicity Simpson, once toured in a production that was managed by Tim Coldwell, one of the founding members of Circus Oz. Tim is also the godfather to Felicity's son. Later this season, Le Grand C will feature the talents of several couples, while Rennie Harris’ son will be one of the dancers in RHAW.

The notion of “keeping it in the family” has also been true of numerous companies presented here in the past. La Famiglia Dimitri was a true family affair descended from a long line of famed circus performers. Tamlin Wiltshire was the Technical Director for both Cinderella and Potato Needs a Bath, which were created and performed by Shona Reppe, his wife. Perhaps the Scottish are particularly fond of working with their loved ones considering that Elspeth Murray was the stage manger to her husband, Richard Medrington, whose puppetry antics were featured in The Man Who Planted Trees. We’ve also been privileged to work with The Jim Henson Foundation, under his daughter, Cheryl Henson’s esteemed leadership; his son, John Henson, helped us celebrate our opening in 1995, performing as Sweetums.

While he New Victory has been presenting work for families (and sometimes performed by families) since 1995, the theater itself has a long and colorful history of family drama played out on and offstage. When the theater opened in 1900 as the Theatre Republic, Lionel Barrymore performed in the very first production. The son of two actors, Lionel Barrymore began performing as a teenager. He was the older brother of Ethel and John Barrymore, and all three siblings would go on to have illustrious careers in both theater and film. In fact, they were so famous that they were the inspiration for the Broadway play The Royal Family. The legacy of the Barrymore family continues to this day
Lionel is the grand-uncle of actress Drew Barrymore.

Later, when the Theatre Republic operated under the name Belasco Theatre, stars like Mary Pickford got their start on our stage. Nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford was actually Canadian and began performing as a child in Toronto. When her father deserted the family, her mother—also an actress—chose to move to America in hopes of launching stage careers for all three of her children. While Mary Pickford was the most famous of the three, her sister, Lottie, and brother, Jack, also had careers that ultimately took them to Hollywood, where combined, they starred in over 250 films.
In 1931, Billy Minsky converted the Theatre Republic to Broadway’s first burlesque house. Billy was one of four Minsky brothers, all of whom worked in theater and helped establish American burlesque. One of the most infamous burlesque performers was Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir would ultimately inspire the musical Gypsy. Born Rose Louise Hovick, her mother pushed both Louise and her sister, June, to become performers from a very early age, going so far as to prompt June to cry for films by telling her that the family dog had died. While June eventually distanced herself from her family, Gypsy Rose Lee continued to support her mother for many years.

When Minsky’s Burlesque closed and reopened as the Victoria Theatre, it began to screen films. It’s very likely that Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Monsieur Verdoux was shown to audiences at the Victoria, creating a direct link to The New Victory Theater: decades later, Chaplin’s grandson, James Thieree created and performed in Junebug Symphony, in costumes created by his sister, Victoria.

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