Who Were the Gaiety Girls?

Before the Floradora Girls, the Ziegfeld Girls, or the Goldwyn Girls, there were the Gaiety Girls. These were the creation of West End impresario George Edwardes (1855-1915).

Edwardes had learned the ropes as a theatrical producer under Richard D’Oyly Carte, helping to mount Gilbert and Sullivan operas at the Savoy, among other things. In 1885 he was given charge of the Gaiety Theatre, where he initially produced the sort of burlesque productions that were then in vogue. But he wanted to break away from burlesque shows, to create classier sorts of productions that would attract a better heeled (wealthier) audience. Starting with In Town and The Gaiety Girl, both in 1893, he began to present productions that mixed elements of burlesque (lots of attractive girls, fun, and songs) with more sophisticated scripts, music and costumes. He broke away, in other words, from the aesthetic of Lydia Thompson’s British Blondes. His Gaiety Girls sported the latest fashions, spoke smart dialogue, and, while not prudes, were also not coarse in the manner associated with burlesque and music hall. They were independent without being “low”. (It’s an oversimplification, but hen I picture British burlesque and music hall I imagine Cockney accents, while for Gaiety and Edwardian musicals, standard speech).

Edwardes had a series of smash hits throughout the ’90s and into the new century, not just at the Gaiety but at several other theaters, as well, and they also toured the UK and internationally. Like the Floradora and Ziegfeld Girls who came later, several of the Gaiety Girls married millionaires and members of the nobility. Some who went on to renown as actresses were Constance Collier, Gaby Deslys, and Cicely Courtneidge. Edwardes’ innovations helped pave the way for all musical comedy that followed. Later, in the 1920s, I believe Rodgers and Hart’s Garrick Gaieties were meant to evoke the glamor of the original Gaiety shows, much as Ziegfeld’s Follies were meant to evoke the Folies Bergère.

Edwardes had the bad fortune to be staying at a spa in Germany for his bad health when World War One broke out. He was imprisoned for several months, exacerbating his condition. He expired just shy of his 60th birthday.

For more about vaudeville and related variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous