One of my more enjoyable job duties as a librarian and archivist in Brooklyn Public Library’s local history division, the Brooklyn Collection, is writing about our lesser known collections in our blog, Brooklynology. One such hidden gem is the Gertrude Hoffman Collection, three boxes stuffed with photographs, scrapbooks, programs, and newspaper clippings documenting the professional life of the dancer, who is best known for introducing the Salome dance and the Ballet Russes to American audiences. I’ve already written about Gertrude’s fascinating exploits as an comedic impressionist, dancer, and scandalous outlaw-for-the-arts here and here, but in those blog posts I made only a passing mention of the famous dance troupe Hoffman formed during her later years in showbiz, the Gertrude Hoffman Girls. Although I lack Trav’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of vaudeville, I can share some rare images and ephemera from our collection of the world-touring dance ensemble.
Comprised of up to 18 dancers, the troupe was active through the 1920s and 30s, performing on stages in the U.S.and abroad, most notably at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris. During a stint at that club in June 1925, a Parisbureau reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper wrote that the Hoffman Girls “make up almost the entire show at the Moulin Rouge Music Hall. Beside the Gertrude Hoffman girls, the various Tiller choruses in New York shows would be skimmed milk, for the American group here not only can dance as well but apparently have been through every athletic course known to Macfadden. They fence, they are trapeze acrobats, they are ballet dancers, and they each have a distinctly excellent specialty.” A month later, the Eagle supplied this drawing of the various feats of the Hoffman Girls as they prepared for the opening of their “Artists and Models” show at Oscar Hammerstein’s Winter Garden in Manhattan.
And feats they were. In addition to precision-timed dance routines and fencing demonstrations, the Hoffman Girls’ accomplishments on the stage included something called “webbing”, which I assume refers to the aerial gymnastics of the sort pictured here, in this shot of the original troupe at a dress rehearsal for Ziegfeld’s Follies:
Gertrude Hoffman certainly put her performers through the ropes. We are lucky to have in our collection several fascinating images from the troupe’s rehearsals in 1938. Here you can see Hoffman herself (in a sweater and braids) intervening to arrange her dances poses just so, and stepping in herself at times to demonstrate the technique she demanded of her girls.
It should also be noted that during their time performing at the Moulin Rouge, the Hoffman Girls captured the fancy of no less a personage than French surrealist poet Paul Eluard, who wrote an ode to their prowess that included the stirring lines, “You trade love for the thrills of a swordflash/And welling laughter for the promise of dawn./Your dances are the frightening gulf of my dreams/And I sink and my fall makes eternal my life…”
Another, infinitely more obscure writer – a Ms. Mable Clifford of Brooklyn– submitted her own poem on the Hoffman Girls to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper in January of 1934:
Scandalous though they may have been onstage, the Hoffman Girls seemed to have no trouble finding their audience. As this image of the girls cavorting on a beach demonstrates, the spectacle of 18 lovely, talented Gertrude Hoffman Girls couldn’t help but draw a crowd wherever they went.
There is much, much more to share from the Gertrude Hoffman collection – too much to share here! Anyone who would like to see the materials in person, or any of the other items in our collection – which includes maps, prints, newspapers, photographs, and ephemera from Brooklyn’s past – are welcome to visit us at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch or follow us on Twitter @Brooklynology!