Marcelle Earle: First Among Chorus Girls

Broadway chorus girl and model Marcelle Earle (1895-1955) was born on this day. Earle is particularly interesting for having gotten as famous and successful as a chorus girl could get without crossing the line to being a starring actress a la Louise Brooks, Olive Thomas, etc. Her fame rested on the fact that she was often picked out for specialty numbers in shows, and that her visage was often used in photos and illustrations in ads and publicity images for the shows she was in, such as this one:

For a short time during the Jazz Age, the smart set in New York, stage door johnnies and aspiring showgirls knew who she was. She came onto my radar because my wife the Mad Marchioness, in researching her chorus girl project, had purchased her posthumously published memoir Midnight Frolic: A Ziegfeld Girl’s True Story. 

The book is an intriguing and useful document, awash in contradictions, extremely detailed about the show biz life, and yet, one suspects, substantially self-censored. Earle was the daughter of an opera-loving German immigrant mother, and a Puerto Rican law student who was staying in her rooming house. Earle’s father was her mother’s third bad marriage; he left the family when Earl was a toddler. A stepfather came into the picture, and while he seems to have been hardworking, as did the mother, there was little stability. They were constantly trying new ventures and new jobs, and moving from place to place. One truly begins to lose count of all the places the family lived and worked during Earle’s childhood. Often, her mother ran theatrical boarding houses, and Earle writes glowingly of the show folk she met when a child. And though the family was constantly poor, the mother saw that she got she singing and dancing lessons.

When she was about 14, she got into an act, Dawson’s Dancing Dolls, on the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City. When she was 16 she moved to Broadway and was hired for a small time vaudeville act called Dancing Girls and Pets, which paired a quartet of dancers with trained collies. She toured the country with this act for several months, enduring the usual privations, including occasional non-payment and strandings in faraway towns. In 1912 she broke into the #3 road company of the Broadway operetta The Spring Maid and this proved a formative transitional experience. She spent several months on the road in the same role and became a seasoned professional.

One is tempted to marvel at her luck when one contemplates the number of chances she had and tossed away…only to have more offers and chances come her way. I suspect however that it was only partially luck, bolstered and buoyed by a combination of beauty, personality, skill and talent. She was cast in one of the early editions of The Passing Show, but quit after several rehearsals because she didn’t like director Ned Wayburn’s manner (she would later work with him several times in the Follies). She then got into the Klaw and Erlanger production of the operetta The Pink Lady but her mother made her quit when she learned it was a national tour (she’d complained to her ma of the hard life during The Spring Maid). But then she got a job in a western tour of a show called The Candy Shop, produced by Broncho Billy Anderson. This was a prestige show with stars like Rock and Fulton, Kitty Doner, and the soon to be famous Frances White. Now she was solidly credentialed and possessed of a new degree of confidence.

The following season, 1914, she made it to Broadway in the Charles Dillingham musical Watch Your Step, featuring Vernon and Irene Castle and Frank Tinney. When that show closed the following year she got into the Ziegfeld Follies, and she was to be a fixture of the show through numerous editions: 1915, 1917, 1919, 1922, and 1923. Other shows during her decade or so on Broadway included the Fred Stone vehicles Jack O’Lantern (1917-1918) and Tip Top (1920-1921). She was cast in the Follies of 1924, but decided to quit for domestic reasons: she was married with two children by that point.

I mentioned that she mad a miraculous knack for securing work after throwing away or endangering opportunities. According to her book, her two major employers Charles Dillingham and Flo Ziegfeld constantly let her get away with murder (e.g., taking leaves of absence, quitting some shows then returning later for others, refusing to do things directors told her, etc). But this picture, one of the most famous of her’s, explains a great deal, I think:

She was about 30 when she retired, she lived another 30 years as a wife and mother, while her husband Arthur Homme, whom she met during The Spring Maid, remained in show business.

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