Flora Zabelle: The First Armenian-American Star

April 1 was the birthday of Flora Zabelle (Flora Zabelle Mangasarian, 1880-1968) and it’s unfortunate, for portions of her biography make it seem as though the teller were pulling your leg. One thing is inarguable: she was among the first (possibly the first) Armenian-American stage and screen stars.

Her father was M.M. Mangasarian, an Armenian pastor and later a rationalist/secularist author and lecturer. The family was from Ottoman Turkey. The Mangasarians fled an early wave of Armenian persecutions shortly after Flora was born in 1880, settling first in Princeton, where her father was a student, then in Philadelphia where he was a Presbyterian minister 1882-85. By 1892 the family was in Chicago, where Mangasarian was a leader of the Ethical Culture Society. He founded the Independent Religious Society there in 1900.

Flora attended Wellesley briefly but then moved to New York circa 1889 to begin a career on the stage. Her first role was part in the chorus of the Castle Square Opera Company in 1900. This led to her first Broadway role in the musical San Toy later that year. At around the same time, her father, who’d returned to Turkey to lecture, was arrested and detained by authorities. Flora led a publicity and fundraising campaign to secure his release. He finally returned to America in 1903.

In 1904 she appeared opposite Raymond Hitchcock in the Broadway show The Yankee Consul. The pair were married the following year. With Hitchcock she also appeared in the shows Easy Dawson (1905), The Yankee Tourist (1907), The Mascot (1909), and The Man Who Owns Broadway (1909-10). In 1907, Hitchcock was jailed for bedding an underage girl. He was eventually acquitted and the charges proved false, but he had spent nine months behind bars, a test for his career as well as the pair’s marriage.

Without Hitchcock, Zabelle appeared in the shows The Kiss Waltz (1911), The Pearl Maiden (1912), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913, Toot-Toot! (1918) and The Girl from Home (1920). She was enough of a star by this point that her image was used on trading cards that came with Fatima Cigarettes. With Hitchcock, she appeared in the silent comedy movies The Savage Tiger (1914), The Ring-Tailed Rhinoceros (1915), and A Village Scandal (1915, also with Fatty Arbuckle). The Red Widow (1916) paired her with John Barrymore in a part that had been played on stage by Hitchcock. A Perfect 36 (1918) with Mabel Normand was her last film.

Zabelle was retired from performing by the 1920s, though she did return one last time after Hitchcock’s 1929 death to appear in the Broadway show The Man on Stilts (1931).

To learn more about early stage history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube