Olga Petrova: Vaudeville’s Fake Russian

“Olga Petrova” was the very essence of vaudeville flim-flammery. Actually a London cockney named Muriel Harding, she presented herself to the public as a great Russian actress. Fraudulent though she was, this highly eccentric person was one of vaudeville’s top stars, and taken quite seriously even while she was being humored.

Born in 1885, she started out by performing in amateur plays and small parts in London in about 1905. Within 4 years she became a prominent figure on the West End.

At her managers suggestion she changed her name to Madame Olga Petrova, a sort of combination of “Anna Pavlova” (a ballet dancer who played the Hippodrome) and her husband’s name, which was “Petrov” (though she was to ditch him). Her act however was closer to that of Nazimova’s. In 1911, she was a smash at the London Pavilion, and on the strength of this Jesse Lasky hired her to star at his new Folies Bergere when it opened the following year. Unaccountably, she was so bad she was booed.

Her performances were a unique hodge-podge of character songs and dramatic monologues and recitations. Her first success was with an impression of actress Lena Ashwell in the 1906 play The Shulamite. Another stunt was singing a French translation of  “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”.

Booked at Proctor’s 5th Avenue, she accepted the gig on the condition that for the first week she would receive no money and no billing. Perplexed, the booker agreed. During the week, she slayed the audience. The next week, English performer R.A. Roberts joined the bill, at which point Petrova insisted on being the headliner. Roberts, who’d been hired as the headliner, made a stink and quit the engagement. Petrova years earlier had done a tour of South Africa with his company. It was the opinion of some that Roberts had been a beast with her, and this was her way of getting even.

That sort of deliberateness and stealth is very characteristic of Petrova, who often germinated and hatched such schemes over periods of many years. Her entire career is another example of such a scheme. Here’s another example:

After a tour of the midwest on the Keith Circuit, a couple of Broadway shows for the Shuberts, and some films, she told her booker that she wanted vaudeville engagements only in the following towns: Providence, Oklahoma City, Columbus, Indianapolis, Fort Worth and Houston. Which, if you stop and think about it, is a preposterous tour…all travel and all small towns. Furthermore, she asked to be paid $1 more than the previous highest paid performer at each theatre. These strange demands were met, and Olga Petrova went off to conquer each town. In several cities, she broke Bernhardt’s previous attendance record. In turned out, that she had been told years ago by somebody that she would flop in all of those towns. Now she could prove that not only was she a hit, but she was the highest paid performer at each stop. She was determined to win!

Edward Albee wanted her to do a tour of whole Keith circuit but she declined. In 1919, Palace booker Eddie Darling wanted her to perform there, as well. She declined at first, but finally relented and was a huge success. After this, she announced she was saying goodbye to vaudeville. Seven years ago she had flopped. She said she only stayed in show business long enough to find out why. And what she learned was “what made good was a noisy fake.”

She learned her lesson well. She was never without her fake Russian accent, onstage or off, even with her most intimate acquaintances. Yet apparently, she was so moving in her dramatic portrayals, and so serious about the content of her art, that she had to be taken seriously. An ardent feminist, she always chose strong, independent female roles in plays and monologues that offered a moral.

In the 1920s she did three plays which she wrote and starred in: The White Peacock (1921), Hurricane (1923) about birth control, and What Do We Know (1927), which was about spiritualism. She returned to vaudeville several times in the 1920s, and then retired – -from everything – for good in the late 1920s. She spent the remainder of her fifty year retirement in the South of France and in Florida. To the end of her days, she never dropped the accent.

To find out more about  these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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